Fibre not good for all diets: analyst

A group of component manufacturers, led by 3M, is claiming that fibre to the desktop is now an economic alternative to copper cabling. But one industry analyst noted that while the cost of installing fibre has fallen substantially, it’s still a significantly more expensive proposition than stringing copper.

The fibre group, known as the VF-45 Action Group, is named after 3M’s VF-45 fibre interconnector, which has lowered the cost of deploying fibre through its simplified design.

With the VF-45 interface, users are paying only 30 per cent more to deploy fibre than they would pay to deploy copper, said Vincent Wong, chairman of the VF-45 group and president of Gemflex Networks in Richmond, B.C. That’s a vast improvement on the 300 per cent premium they would have paid in the past, he said.

Gemflex is a manufacturer of fibre transceivers, media converters, switching hubs and network adapters.

Even at its steep price in the past, fibre to the desktop was often deployed in factories, where noise and vibration caused transmission problems for copper cabling, and in universities, Wong said. Now that fibre’s price has come down, Wong believes fibre to the desktop will be an attractive option for enterprises.

There are several advantages to fibre, Wong explained.

One is distance. Data can travel further along fibre than it can along copper cabling, meaning enterprises using fibre should need fewer wiring closets, Wong said.

“You don’t need them if you go with fibre and a collapsed backbone.”

Fewer wiring closets means fewer personnel required to keep the network up and running and more savings, Wong said.

Another advantage, according to Wong, is that if enterprises install fibre, they won’t have to keep upgrading their cabling.

“If you install fibre once, you’re good for the next three to four generations of technology,” he said.

There’s no question that new fibre connectors from firms such as 3M and AMP Inc. have lowered the cost of deploying fibre, said Mark Fabbi, an analyst with consultancy Gartner Group Canada Inc. in Mississauga, Ont.

Enterprises can now find Layer 2 fibre switches at prices around US$230 per port, Fabbi said. However, that’s still about double the cost of a basic workgroup switch, he noted.

One unforeseen expense users installing fibre may run into is NICs, Fabbi said.

“NICs tend to be built into PCs now,” he explained, “so you have the added cost of putting in a fibre NIC.”

Fabbi said enterprises could see some benefit from eliminating wiring closets if they move to fibre, but he added “it won’t offset the cost of the switches and the NICs.”

With copper cabling still improving, according to Fabbi, fibre won’t see big market-share gains until the 2004 time frame and even then it will only succeed if the price keeps dropping.

Diane Pete, the IT administrator at the St. Elizabeth Visiting Nurses Association in Hamilton, Ont., is one of the early adopters of fibre to the desktop.

The association, which provides home nursing, supportive housing services and volunteer visiting in the Hamilton area, has fibre drops to approximately 35 workstations.

Pete said she decided to make the switch from copper to fibre, largely because the association was offered a very good deal from 3M.

The switch to fibre was made as part of a network overhaul, which included replacing the association’s server and switches. Nurses with the association had been experiencing problems downloading scheduling information off the network onto their laptops.

Since the upgrade, Pete said, the network has performed much better. However, because many elements of the network were upgraded, the improved performance probably can’t be attributed to the fibre installation alone.