Fluke jumps ahead with OTDR

Getting a jump on proposed test standards for fibre installs, Fluke Networks Inc. has unveiled a field optical time domain reflectometer (OTDR) specifically for super-high-speed LANs.

The Everett, Wash.-based network-test equipment maker in October announced the availability of OptiFiber, a device the firm says ensures fibre-optic LANs are up to par with rigorous test standards proposed by the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA).

OptiFiber marries auto OTDR analysis with loss/length certification and end-face inspection to comply with a draft telecommunications system bulletin (TSB) currently before the TIA, said Brad Masterson, product manager with Fluke Networks Canada in Mississauga, Ont.

Masterson explained that the TIA wants to make sure fibre installs meet certain requirements. TSB 140, the bulletin before the group, proposes a two-tiered approach to testing. Tier one would involve loss/length tests and optical loss tests. Tier two requires an OTDR trace of the cable plant.

Masterson said the TIA is addressing the need for stringent test procedures as fibre makes its way into enterprise LANs.

“The fibre is more sensitive because of the higher speeds,” he said, explaining how as gigabit and 10-gigabit backbones propogate, so too does the need for tight test procedures.

OptiFiber answers the call with an easy-to-use auto OTDR trace analysis, which automatically optimizes the test for the customer’s LAN.

Unlike other OTDRs designed for carrier-class cable plants, Fluke’s latest offering picks up dead zones as small as one metre, thereby accounting for the short distances between connections often found in enterprise networks, the company said.

According to Fluke, the device also provides end-face inspection with an integrated video microscope for close scrutiny of network connections.

OptiFiber ships with Fluke’s LinkWare reporting software, the firm said, so users can manage test documentation at the desktop.

Sailaja Vepa, research analyst with Frost & Sullivan in Atlanta, said the combined OTDR-loss/length functionality that OptiFiber affords “makes sense” for fibre-optic installers. However, she pointed out that fibre installs are “slow” in North America these days and Fluke’s prospects lie overseas.

Marco Mercado, fiber optics manager with Compel Holdings Inc., a network installation firm in Phoenix, Ariz., tried and liked OptiFiber. He said the OTDR trace is particularly useful when explaining network problems to his clients.

“When you get customer reports, normally it’s a whole bunch of numbers and they don’t know what [the numbers] mean,” Mercado said, adding that Fluke’s device translates metrics into a less-baffling representation for network newbies.

Mercado said Compel would hold off on purchasing the product, however. “Right now with the economy the way it is, we don’t want to go there.” Compel might consider buying OptiFiber in 2003, he added.

Despite Mercado’s praise, the question remains, is Fluke jumping the gun? The TIA has not ratified TSB 140, the proposed best practices for network tests. So how does the company know OptiFiber will meet the final requirements?

“Most vendors wait for standards, but many of those standards just linger somewhere in cyberspace,” said Lisa Erickson, an analyst with Enterprise Management Associates Inc. headquartered in Boulder, Colo.

“It puts the vendor in a tough position,” she said, explaining that Fluke could either “innovate” or wait for the TIA to pull the trigger.

Since standards orgs like the TIA tend to move slowly, Erickson said, “I see this as more of a leadership role for Fluke, but they have to be prepared to make changes if the standard evolves.”

Masterson said history guides Fluke in this regard. When the TIA was looking at test procedures for gigabit-over-copper plants, it ratified two TSBs that eventually became part of the standard. Masterson said TSB 140 would follow a similar path.

OptiFiber comes in three flavours. The first offers auto OTDR analysis and ChannelMap features for $24,102. The second, “advanced” model adds power meter capabilities for $25,824. The third “certifying” platform comes with a pair of matched units to monitor each end of the link, as well as video probes for $68,879. For more information see Fluke’s Web site, www.flukenetworks.com.