Full of surprises

With a solid educational infrastructure typical of the Canadian university – strong programs and smart professors – Dalhousie University in Halifax tries to teach students to seek the truth, be it the real meaning behind Wordsworth’s poems or the here-and-now ramifications of events long past. This higher education is supposed to teach young adults not only to question whatever half-truths, myths and outright lies they may encounter in life. The post-secondary experience also is meant to prepare them for problem solving in the world beyond the ivory tower’s gate.

Ironically, even in the midst of such a thought-provoking and truth-seeking environment, the school’s manager of data communications had to learn the hard way a tiny but maddening fact about fibre-optic technology.

Marc Dooley, said manager, remembers when Dalhousie commissioned MT&T, the local telco, to lay three runs of fibre-optic cable in the late-1980s. The conduits would span the school’s main campus to connect five buildings with the computer centre, laying the foundation for quick network access across the entire institution.

Dooley said fibre was the right choice for upgrading the school’s network infrastructure. For one thing there was this new transmission technology called “Ethernet” that required plenty of bandwidth to send data. As well, before installing fibre Dalhousie relied on copper cables rented from MT&T that were not only slow, but also expensive.

“Through one set of fibres, we can connect 128 customers,” Dooley said during a recent interview. “That would have been 128 rentals from MT&T at $13 a month for the copper lines.”

With a mind to doing the job himself in the future, Dooley spent a lot of time scrutinizing the MT&T installation team at work, watching as they carefully spliced fibre and spun what would be Dalhousie’s network backbone. He learned to avoid the ends left over from splicing (they can get lodged under the skin, he said) and gleaned other details from the experience.

But when it came time for Dooley to do the school’s next fibre installation himself – connecting the Dentistry building to the main computer in the early-1990s – he discovered that one small-but-important detail had slipped through his MT&T education.

“It’s funny,” he said. “There’s grease inside the fibre and inside copper cables too, but I had never dealt with it before.”

The grease; it’s supposed to protect the fibre from water, but it gets in the way of splicing jobs. And it got in Dooley’s way during his first attempt at laying fibre, making for a trying experience. “I was trying everything to clean this grease off,” he said, nonetheless the myriad soaps, even alcohol and acetone would not penetrate the oily barrier.

It took some time but “finally I found a product out there that was made to clean it off,” Dooley said.

Dooley laughs off the incident now. After all, his tiny misconception about working with fibre, however frustrating, pales in comparison to the incorrect ideas others have about these cables. Industry observers note how myths concerning fibre’s price, transmission capabilities and fragility create a false picture of the technology – a distorted record that deserves to be set straight.

The price is right?

For one thing, fibre-optic cable itself is not as expensive as some might think, said Warren Neumeier, a Calgary-based sales engineer with Tyco Electronics Canada Ltd., a digital transmission equipment maker that sells fibre-optic cable. In fact, fibre is not much more pricey than high-grade copper, he said.

Neumeier priced the cost of a Category 5e installation to each desktop in a 500-person company at $100,000. Fibre costs just slightly more at $175,000.

“Where it gets expensive is the switch technologies,” he said. “For example, you could probably buy a Category 5 Enhanced 10-100Base-T NIC card on the street today for anywhere from $35 to $50…With fibre, I’ve seen prices anywhere from $300 to $900 per port on the NIC card.”

Neumeier said that same 500-person company would pay $75,000 to $100,000 for Cat 5e electronic equipment, but $500,000 for fibre electronics. Even though the fibre cable itself is priced on par with copper, the infrastructure is not cheap.

Electronics play another role in making fibre-optic myths. Although Neumeier said fibre offers “infinite” speeds, Dooley said digital interfaces get in the way.

“Infinite? Theoretically it is, but we’re buying GBICs (Gigabit Interface Converters) from Cisco and the length limit on multimode (as opposed to single mode) fibre is 150 metres…There is a limit. As far as speed is concerned, it’s the electronics hooked up to that fibre. That’s where you’re limited.”

If the cable breaks, however, the electronics are moot. Still, according to Doug Hanson, director of sales with Netricom, the Toronto-based network infrastructure arm of Axia NetMedia Corp., fibre is no more delicate than copper – despite news to the contrary.

“It’s a little more sensitive, but the myth of it being glass and therefore a little more breakable isn’t really there.”

Neumeier agreed, saying fibre cables can handle more yank-and-pull (200 pounds pulling tension vs. 25 on high-grade copper), which makes installation that much easier.

“If you pull on a copper cable too hard, you’re stretching the cable somewhat and you could damage the conformity of the twisted pair,” Neumeier said. Mess with the degree of twist and you mess with the cable’s performance, he explained.

However, “If you have to pull that hard, that means you designed something incorrectly or improperly as far as your pathways and spaces go,” said Henry Franc, associate director of Bell Cabling Solutions Group (BCG) in Toronto. “It’s not really a selling feature, but it is an argument for those who say fibre is not as robust.”

Making the grade

According to Franc, fibre manufacturers perpetuate another myth about optical cabling: never mind the numbers associated with one or another bit of fibre, it’s all the same in the end.

But that’s not true. Indeed, “all fibre systems are not created equal,” Franc said. Although choosing fibre seems relatively simple beside copper – Cat 3 through 6 and every variation therein – it isn’t. There are in fact different grades of fibre as well. Aside from multimode and single mode, “there’s 62.5 micron, 50 micron, lazer optimized 50 micron…”

The numbers apply to each cable’s core size. To further complicate things, Franc said there is no direct correlation between core size and performance.

The industry is trying to quell the confusion. “Fibre manufacturers through the TIA (Telecommunications Industry Association) are publishing a great little chart, an addendum to the fibre applications,” Franc said. “(If) you’ve got this type of application, you get this type of fibre.”

Not everything about fibre is a myth. There remain certain truths such as its limited use these days.

“It wouldn’t be in the norm for a company to have fibre right to the desktop,” said Jeremy Depow, senior analyst with The Yankee Group Canada in Ottawa, Ont. “It’s probably for specialized firms that are sending back and forth huge pieces of data… Companies that might see themselves using those applications down the road may also want to implement it, in order to save costs.”

It’s this kind of “future proofing” that Tyco advocates, Neumeier said.

Consider a company looking at voice over IP and other network applications with hefty bandwidth requirements. “Maybe they should run some fibre…so it would be an easy scenario if that application, that driver, comes next. It could be video. That could be the next big driver. Who’s to say if that’s going to come out next year or five years from now? That’s why when I go to institutional environments [and long-standing enterprises] I say don’t leave Cat 6 or fibre out.”

Neumeier added that fibre’s charm lies in “centralized” management. Since copper cables generally do not send signals as far as fibre does, copper architecture can be more difficult to manage.

“With copper cables, we’re subject to a 100-metre length, maximum. Using centralized network architecture and fibre-optic cables, we can actually stretch that to 300 metres. That gives you better port utilization. With copper you’d have more of a distributed network, so the active equipment would be spread over the whole network and the ports are not utilized quite as well…

“What we end up doing is a fibre backbone between…two telecommunications rooms, and then copper cabling from those rooms to the workstation.”

BCG’s Franc said he senses growing interest in fibre to the desktop. For example, technology distribution firm Ingram Micro Canada in Toronto employs multi-user telecommunications outlet assemblies (MUTOAs) to distribute fibre connections among computer users.

“You see it (fibre to the desktop) for green-field type projects, like Ingram Micro, where they’re building from the ground up,” Franc said. “The ROI calculations can…make it more cost effective.

He added that a lot of large financial institutions are taking a closer look at it, “especially since the advent of voice over IP. There’s a hell of a lot of potential for fibre to the desk.”

Dalhousie’s Dooley said the school would not likely bring fibre to the desktop in the near future. He cited the high price of electronics and questionable need as reasons for holding off.

Dooley also said the school lays both multimode and single mode fibre – for short and long distances respectively – whether it’s needed or not.

“You never know what’s going to come up…In the future, we may need single mode fibre to go 200 metres – that’s probably not the case, but you never know what the future will bring.”

The school employs a hybrid cable with both multimode and single mode built in. Dooley said this combination helps keep installation costs down.

“In some cases we’ll install this cable and only terminate the multimode. We’ll just leave the single mode there so we can go back and terminate it at a later date if we ever need it. The extra price on the fibre inside the cable is minimal compared to the entire cost of the job. You don’t have to go back and do that install again.”

As far as Dooley is concerned, fibre has kept true to its promise. It is faster than the twisted copper pairs the school once used. It’s not subject to electromagnetic and radio frequency interference (EMI and RFI) that can hinder copper’s performance. And once installed, fibre requires little maintenance. “We very seldom have problems with our fibre-optic connections.”

Should the odd problem occur, Depow from The Yankee Group Canada said fibre-cabling companies are prepared to handle fibre-optic trouble. Companies like BCG and Netricom want to foster close ties with their customers – and their customers’ wallets, he added.

“They (installation companies) want to do the planning for you, so down the road you don’t have a huge mess of cable running everywhere. They want to implement and provide the cable. Even after that, they want a value-add, to manage that whole process for you.”

Large enterprises might enjoy tight relationships with installers, Depow said, especially if “it’s going to cut costs further down the road. When you have to rip stuff up and replace it, there are big messes. It’s quite a complicated process.”

Dooley advised, “I would get trained before you start anything. Corning (Inc., which manufactures optical fibre), for instance, will come out and train your company on how to do fibre optics. You don’t have to buy their product or anything, but they will do that…

“Learn what you’re getting into before you start,” he said, adding that education is one sure-fire way to learn a defining truth about fibre: Foregoing the protective petroleum Dooley encountered on his first splicing attempt, “it’s pretty easy