The importance of standards and the standards-making process

Oct. 1, 2009
Information-technology managers desire to have a cable plant that is permanent and invisible.

Information-technology managers desire to have a cable plant that is permanent and invisible. Once the infrastructure has been installed, they prefer not to think about it again so they can focus their attention on active equipment that must keep up with the constantly evolving applications on the network. This is much easier said than done.

One of the most significant contributors to simplifying the design of a reliable network is through standards. The development of, and adherence to, standards provides a framework that allows sustained growth with a structured cabling platform. While the growth cannot be maintained indefinitely, it provides the basis for a sensible roadmap. This has been the foundation of the structured cabling industry for the past 20 years, and the cumulative result of these activities has contributed to the industry's ability to adapt to ever-increasing bandwidth demand.

But how do the standards evolve? Is it simply a case of the first design or proposal becoming the standard that everyone else follows? Or is it a competitive bake-off to determine the best product or method? Neither; it is a collaborative effort among many interested parties including manufacturers, users, consultants, and others. Each party brings its own perspective to the solution. For some, electrical or optical performance is the most important issue. For others, it is mechanical reliability. For still others, relative cost matters most. Each issue is debated until a compromise is reached. It is this compromise that ultimately becomes incorporated into the standard. Once the cabling requirements are standardized, only then can applications be defined that will operate over them.

A well-designed cabling infrastructure will allow for the migration of speeds, such as the predicted speed-growth shown in this graph, without the need for new cabling. Adherence to standards can allow this to happen.

A recently developed standard that generated much debate focused on the next generation of 50-micron fiber. Aptly named OM4 to succeed OM3, this product will provide additional bandwidth that can be used for extended distances, additional connectors, and/or higher-speed protocols. While almost all parties agree to the need for a higher-bandwidth multimode fiber, the details of the fiber's definition created a lot of dispute.

For example, a significant debate revolved around the proper way to measure and report bandwidth. If the intent was to provide a higher-bandwidth product, everyone should agree on the procedure to determine that value. This statement may seem obvious, but it is one of many details that go into creating a standard.

Another example is nomenclature. In the case of the OM4 debate, the question arose what to call an important attribute. Effective modal bandwidth, or calculated modal bandwidth? Some terms appear to be more accurate descriptions while others provide continuity to legacy usage. Which is more important?

Bulent Kose, project engineer at the Nexans Data Communications Competence Center, states, "Terms like OFL, EMB, minEMBc and DMD all need to be understood and clearly defined so that users understand how to properly implement these products. Consistent measurement methodologies and naming conventions aid in the comparison of product and/or vendor performance. Having a set of standards provides a uniform way of measuring and qualifying fibers based on these parameters."

The fact that a standard gets established does not preclude companies from promoting "better-than-standard"-performing products. For example, my company has offered the XB glass for years, well before OM4 discussions began. Many of the same features we promoted have been incorporated into the new OM4 document; however, the glass still exceeds the performance that has been standardized. So we still explain the benefits that are associated with headroom. For some customers this is a valuable feature.

When it comes to standards, however, it will still be the industry-agreed-upon OM4 definition that will be adhered to. No single company can control the standards, nor should they. The consensus-building approach ultimately benefits the entire industry. Andy Punch, my colleague and Berk-Tek's representative to TIA TR-42, states, "Creation of consensus-based standards requires collaborative technical work, frank discussions, and ultimately cooperation to provide the industry with standards from which all companies and customers may benefit."

The standard is the end users' security for future application growth. But when it comes to a look at where standards are headed, it is best to listen to those companies with a direct voice in the process as well as expertise in the end-to-end system. A vendor with a larger view will tend to have less product-specific biases.

Only when the proper cabling system is installed can the IT manager forget about these issues while they shift their focus to other matters. At least for a little while.

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