The verdict is in: Court chooses fiber-to-the-desk

Texas U.S. District Court rules in favor of an optical cabling solution--for itself.

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Texas U.S. District Court rules in favor of an optical cabling solution-for itself.

by Bob Ballard

As the demand for bandwidth increases, so does the common sense approach to installing fiber-to-the-desk. But there are still those who need convincing on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

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The U.S. Courts South Texas Division used SC connectors with anaerobic adhesives, which made for quick optical termination.
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As we know and have been taught since we were wee wire pullers, fiber is always more expensive than copper. But this myth has recently been proven false in many projects throughout the country. Unfortunately, some of our network-design-engineer partners are still using the cut-and-paste method of network design, and seldom offer the end user the option of installing fiber-to-the-desk. These same engineers are still specifying 62.5-µm fiber when they should be calling out 50-µm fiber for new multimode installations.

In 2004, I had the opportunity to speak at 11 luncheons given by various design firms in the Houston and Austin, TX areas. Surprisingly, no engineer at any of the firms was aware of the standards governing fiber-to-the-desk. Many had no idea that 50-µm fiber was, in fact, a part of existing wiring standards. Unfortunately, there was and still is a common misconception that fiber-to-the-desk is always more expensive than copper.

In early 2005, while teaching a Certified Fiber Optics Technician course at the University of Texas at Arlington, I was fortunate to have two students from the United States Courts South Texas Division in Houston. During the five-day course, fiber-to-the-desk was described in great detail. Although this was a fiber-optics class and was obviously biased toward fiber, the presentation offered an opportunity to the U.S. Courts, South Texas Division, to completely understand the benefits of fiber-optic networking without all the myths and misconceptions about using fiber instead of copper all the way to the desktop.

The fiber decision

Once the technicians had completed the class and had solid, up-to-date information, they were able to convey their fiber-optic networking ideas back to the Houston office. Not surprisingly, before they made it home to Houston, the decision to install fiber-to-the-desk in several federal courthouses in the South Texas District was in the works.

It made good sense for the taxpayers and the U.S. Courts, Texas Division facilities. They had been pulling and repulling category unshielded twisted-pair (UTP) copper cables for years just to keep up with the demand for bandwidth from the courthouses. From Category 3 to Category 5e, they had it all. In fact, they were about to purchase new switches and routers for their entire network across all seven cities in the district. Further, the entire network cabling infrastructure was going to need replacement again.

Once they realized that fiber-to-the-desk was a valid option, they began to research the cost involved for both scenarios-copper versus fiber-not only from a cabling standpoint, but also cost-per-port. Several questionshad to be answered: What was the total cost for switches if they ran copper? What would be the total cost of switches and media converters if they installed fiber? How did the cost of fiber cabling compare to that of copper? If they installed copper, how long would it be before they would eventually be installing fiber? Additionally, they knew, based on their available budget, if they were going to put this new network in place, they were going to have to install it themselves.

I have seen network technology standards change dramatically over the past 15 years, from 10-Mbits to 100-Mbits to 1-Gbit and now 10-Gbits/sec. Every time the speed increases, the copper manufacturers come out with a new solution to meet the demands. The U.S. Courts, South Texas Division technicians have been installing and re-installing these solutions for years. As a result, similar organizations attempting to keep up with these standards are forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every three to five years because the copper infrastructure will not support the new technology being introduced.

The latest solution, meant for 10-Gbit/sec networks, has copper manufacturers once again attempting to meet the IEEE’s 802.3an 10GBase-T standard. But based on past history, I believe it will not meet the next standard that comes along. It appears that even if copper can meet the 10GBase-T requirements, this could very well be the final “twist” for copper. Based on these facts, fiber would eventually be installed in the U.S. Courts South Texas buildings in three to five years.

Self-installed network

In addition to being tasked with purchasing new switches and routers, the technicians’ responsibility included trying to convince U.S. Courts management that fiber-to-the-desk was in the best interest of the court and the taxpayers, and that they were capable of installing it themselves after the training they had received.

The ultimate decision turned out to be simple, based on the facts: It was just as cost-effective to install fiber-to-the-desk as copper, considering that it would be installed in their building within three to five years anyway. With fiber, their network would have maximum bandwidth capabilities with no electromagnetic interference/radio-frequency interference and no alien crosstalk; it would be more reliable and secure than a copper network. More importantly, as new technologies are introduced, they would only need to purchase the electronics, instead of both electronics and cabling infrastructure, to meet the demand.

The decision to do the job themselves was easy. Whoever said that installing, terminating, and testing fiber was more difficult than installing, terminating, and testing UTP copper should reconsider, because terminating SC anaerobic connectors is a breeze. Also, the cost of two SC singlemode connectors was less than one of the 10GBase-T-capable 8-pin modular connectors they had initially considered.

The entire project consists of about 8,000 hand terminations. Personally, I would much rather be installing 8,000 anaerobic SCs than 8,000 RJ-45-style UTP connectors. The anaerobic SCs have no worries about separating eight different color-coded wires during termination, about maintaining this twist or that twist, about punching down too hard or not hard enough, and no worries about extra testing for alien crosstalk-or any other crosstalk for that matter. The technicians used a basic power source and light meter to test their fiber segments to ensure they were within the recommended loss budget of the electronics. Only a few SC fiber connectors had to be reterminated.

The decision to use 50/125-µm, OM3 laser-optimized fiber also was simple. The user needed a product that would offer a final solution to cabling-upgrade issues that have plagued all information-technology managers since the early days of networking. The ever-increasing demand for more bandwidth, the need for security, and the demand for network reliability made fiber-to-the-desk the best solution.

In virtually all cases, the ability to upgrade a fiber network is simply a matter of changing a switch or network interface card. In reality, the formula for fiber-to-the-desk is also simple: Install it, test it, and forget it. Because the active telecommunications room (TR) as we know it goes away, there is no need for heating/ventilation/air-conditioning (HVAC) equipment, air ducts, primary power, secondary power, secure access, thermostats, lights, uninterruptible power supplies, grounding, and switches. Plus, consider that many active TRs consume roughly 2% of a building’s annual power budget. Consider, too, that building space is at a premium; the TR is much smaller when fiber-to-the-desk is deployed.

Weighing the real-estate and TR-related issues above, fiber-to-the-desk provides a cost-effective solution ready for future applications, with almost limitless bandwidth capabilities. Also, if there was any doubt about whether one is getting full network speed to the desk continuously, fiber provides a comfort level that copper does not.

Yesterday and tomorrow

While contemplating the need for a fiber-to-the-desk solution, the court division not only considered the ever-changing bandwidth demands of the present, but also those of the future. Over the years, they had installed several generations of UTP cabling, and believed the time had come to install a longer-term solution. With an eye to the future, they decided to specify the latest OM3, 50/125-µm laser-optimized multimode fiber to be used throughout the system at all U.S. federal court house locations in Houston, McAllen, Laredo, Victoria, Corpus Christi, Brownsville, and Galveston. OM3 fibers have the capability of supporting higher transmission rates using lower-cost 850-nanometer (nm) vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers (VCSELs), standard 850-nm light-emitting diodes (LEDs), or most any 1300-nm lasers on the market.

For future bandwidth considerations, the OM3 fiber, which costs around 16 cents per foot more than standard 50-µm fiber, has the capability to support even higher data transmission rates using parallel-optics transceiver arrays and/or coarse wavelength-division multiplexing (CWDM) technology. If you had 10 OM3, 50-µm fibers, each with a throughput of 10-Gbits/sec, each could be aggregated into a 100-Gbit/sec system. Further, if you had 2 OM3 fibers, each carrying four wavelengths, via CWDM, at 12.5-Gbits/sec apiece, the result would also be a 100-Gbit/sec system. Why not use singlemode fiber? The lasers cost much more to manufacture and would drive the cost of ne working electronics too high for LAN-based applications. Singlemode fiber is best used for distances in excess of 550 meters.

One potential concern in such a fiber-to-the-desk installation is the high cost of plenum innerduct. In this case, none was used. With the high tensile strength of new distribution and riser-rated fiber cable, the use of plenum innerduct is an unnecessary expense in many cases, including this one. The U.S. Court’s fiber is being hung from J-hooks above the drop ceiling and along the walls as necessary. Most LAN cable problems occur where we access on a continuous basis-in the TR. Therefore, the use of plenum innerduct in the project was avoided, resulting in a significant decrease in cost-per-drop.

Installation support

Many of the U.S. Courts’ technical staff who installed the cabling had little if any fiber-optics experience. Senior U.S. Courts, South Texas Division personnel provided all daily support and project supervisory functions at all sites. Registered Communications Distribution Designers (RCDD) from BDI DataLynk are providing periodic visits to inspect installation progress and offer assistance should problems occur during the install.

All installation, termination, splicing, and testing is being done by the U.S. Courts’ technical support staff. Every technician and supervisor involved in the actual installation at all seven locations received training from BDI DataLynk, which provided Fiber Optics Assocation-sanctioned fiber-optics training. Although fusion splicers were used for splicing pigtails to the 144-fiber backbone cable serving every TR, this entire project is otherwise being completed with basic fiber-optic tools and test equipment.

The loss budget for the low-cost, high-performance 1300-nm media converters used at each end of the fiber segments is 11 dB. With a 3-dB aging (excess margin) built in at design and additional specified losses allowed for cable, connectors, and splices, no segment is approaching an attenuation level that would cause concern now or in the future. Specifically, the U.S. Courts’ technicians are able to achieve an average splice loss of 0.0 dB and a loss of less than 0.3 dB per connector pair using the anaerobic three-step polishing process. Testing of the newly installed fiber segments is being accomplished with an optical-loss test set. Final segment testing and certification at both 850 and 1300 nm is being accomplished using an industry-recognized, bi-directional cable certification tester.

The benefits and expectations of this 2,000-plus-user fiber-to-the-desk installation will far exceed the expectations of the U.S. Courts’ South Texas Division. The general public, judges, clerks, staff, and network technicians will have fast access to important files, unlimited video teleconferencing capabilities, uninterrupted Voice over IP service, and day-to-day file sharing with tremendous bandwidth capabilities in their new 10-Gbit/sec-capable fiber infrastructure.

Using on-staff personnel; low-cost, high-quality SC singlemode connectors; low-cost tools; basic fiber-optic installation, termination, and testing techniques; the elimination of legacy active TRs; and the elimination of costly plenum innerduct is resulting in a low-cost, virtually maintenance-free, fiber-to-the-desk network that will meet and exceed all current (and, I believe, future) network-bandwidth requirements.

Well-prepared for the future

Even with the use of temporary, low-cost media converters at each end of most fiber segments, the installed cost-per-port fiber-to-the-desk installation has been a cost-effective solution. The substantial overall savings allowed for the purchase of new switches to add to the vast network of switchgear already installed. Now, instead of “mystery” Megs to the desk, the network is only limited by the capabilities of the active components at each end-not crosstalk and other maladies commonly associated with installed UTP copper networks.

The U.S. Courts’ South Texas Division IT team got all of the facts before they made the decision to properly prepare their infrastructure for the future. They took the time to analyze the big difference between actual cost-per-port versus installed cost per port.

The U.S. Courts South Texas Division used SC connectors with anaerobic adhesives, which made for quick optical termination.


More support for fiber-to-the-desk

According to Andrew Oliviero, chair of the Fiber Optics LAN Section of the Telecommunications Industry Association (FOLS; www.fols.org), deploying fiber to the desk is not a new idea; centralized cabling has been a standard-compliant architecture since 1997. “However,” says Oliviero, “many network designers have assumed that it’s simply too expensive to install when compared to a copper-based network. It’s not until designers take into consideration the benefits that fiber can offer, such as increased port utilization, higher bandwidth, and the ability to eliminate or reduce the size of telecommunications rooms, that they begin to see how fiber can be cost-effective to install and offer them even greater savings over the life of the network.”

Oliviero points out that while many people believe that fiber-to-the-desk would only work for very large installations, FOLS uses sample scenarios to envision a situation in which fiber-to-the-desk can be cost effective even for a small number of users. “When you are able to improve port utilization, you are able to reduce the number of switches,” Oliviero explains. “Even if the fiber switches are still more expensive than copper switches, you can use fewer of them.”

He adds that tools are available to help network designers compare the installed first costs of different standards-compliant architectures. “For example, FOLS developed its free Premises Cost Model to help network designers better understand the tradeoffs of deploying different architectures,” Oliviero explains. “The Cost Model allows users to put in the parameters of their own network, use their own costs, and determine relative costs.” (The Cost Model can be downloaded, free of charge, by registering at: www.fols.org/resources/costmodel_reg.cfm.)

FOLS is committed to keeping the Cost Model current with market conditions. The most recent version, published in February, includes the following:

  • Updated aggregate pricing that reflects current market conditions. FOLS encourages users to input their own pricing data to obtain a user-specific comparison of network architecture choices-850-nm laser-optimized 50/125-µm (OM3) fiber, the most commonly used fiber type for premises applications; and Category 5e, 6, and 6A unshielded twisted-pair copper.
  • The ability to customize the port-utilization factor by floor or telecommunications room to more accurately reflect the user’s own design, or use the Model’s default settings.
  • A graphical network architecture comparison that lets users compare costs using pie charts.

“The installation in the U.S. District Courts in South Texas is a great example of how thinking outside of conventional wisdom can reap benefits,” says Oliviero. “In this installation, fiber provided a cost-effective upgrade strategy that could be installed and tested by technicians that were trained just for the job. I think it underscores the performance benefits of fiber and debunks the myth that fiber is more difficult to install than copper.”

The Fiber Optics LAN Section of the TIA is a consortium of leading fiber-optic cable, component, and electronics manufacturers. FOLS focuses on educating end users and design consultants about the technical advantages and affordability that optical transmission can bring to LANs and fiber-to-the-desk applications.

Liz Goldsmith is spokesperson for FOLS. Member companies include: 3M; Berk-Tek, a Nexans Company; CommScope; Corning; Draka Comteq; OFS; Ortronics/Legrand; Panduit; Sumitomo Electric Lightwave; Superior Essex; and Tyco Electronics.

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