The glass highway

For the Spartanburg County Library in Spartanburg, S.C., implementing fibre to the desktop represented a bold move, a journey to a place where bandwidth is abundant and network logjams are just a dusty memory. Yet the decision to go with fibre also meant taking a risk – hoping that a bleeding-edge technology was ready for a mainstream educational facility.

Selecting fibre to the desktop was a gamble, but one with a potentially big payoff, says Tom Lowrimore, the library’s systems and planning coordinator. Back in 1997, when Lowrimore was designing the network infrastructure for the library’s new headquarters and central branch, he faced the choice between fibre and copper – a situation in which the metal usually comes out on top. But in this case, “fibre won because we don’t often get the money needed to tackle an upgrade on a buildingwide scale,” he says. “We wanted something that would last at least 20 years. Fibre would let us move into the future.”

Falling barriers

Fibre to the desktop has always been a great idea for performance reasons, but the technology has long been stalled by cost and technical burdens, including fragile, nonbendable cables and finicky, problem-prone connectors. But fibre to the desktop’s prospects have grown much brighter recently, says Lauri Vickers, a communications industry analyst with Cahners In-Stat Group, a technology research company in Scottsdale, Ariz. “The falling price of fibre, because of improved manufacturing methods and increased competition, has been a big part of the story,” she says. The other piece of the tale is a new generation of simpler connectors and more flexible, easier-to-route cables. These elements, combined with fibre’s ability to accommodate high bandwidths (from 100Mbps fast Ethernet to gigabit Ethernet), have made fibre to the desktop an attractive proposition for a growing number of organizations.

Fibre is more than just fast. It’s also very secure. Unlike standard copper wiring, fibre doesn’t radiate signals that can present a possible security hole. “With fibre optics, you literally have to break into the cable in order to snoop,” says Vickers. For the same reason, fibre networks are highly resistant to outside interference from radio signals, heavy machinery and other electrical generation sources. “If a power plant opens next door, it’s not going to interfere with your fibre network,” says Vickers.

Fibre customers also enjoy the technology’s robust signal strength. While copper cable runs top out at only a few hundred feet, fibre links can span up to three kilometres before requiring amplification. In big networks, that means less hardware and fewer wiring closets.

Fibre technology also reduces latency – the time between initiating a request for data and the beginning of the actual data transfer. “Every time you take a signal, clean it up and retransmit it, you’re going to introduce more delay,” says Vickers. Latency is a critical issue for networks running Internet protocol (IP) telephony and multimedia technologies, where the phenomenon can cause delayed and jumbled sounds and images.

Speed and reliability

At the Spartanburg library headquarters, fibre to the desktop has meant having the ability to send multimedia content, as well as high-speed data traffic, to 110 desktops. Reliability has been another major benefit, says Lowrimore. “Whenever there’s a storm, I don’t have things killed by lightning, a big problem in this neck of the woods.” Lowrimore says he hasn’t had to replace any hardware because of mechanical or electrical failure during the network’s three years of operation. “That’s certainly been a big cost benefit,” he notes.

Other cost fears may be overblown as well. Lowrimore says the fibre media actually priced out about 30 per cent lower than bids he received for unshielded twisted-pair (UTP) Category 5 copper cabling. Network adapter cards, hubs and related fibre electronics hardware totalled slightly higher than the estimated cost of their copper counterparts. In all, the overall implementation (put in place by Atlanta-based systems integrator Fibreworks) totalled slightly less than the estimated cost of a high-bandwidth copper environment, says Lowrimore. “We were pleasantly surprised given everything we had heard about [the cost of] optical fibre.”

Fibre in paradise

And even when it does cost more initially, fibre can save money in other ways. Like Spartanburg, the Hilton Hawaiian Village resort on Waikiki saw fibre as a way to avoid costly network upgrades in the near future. “We wanted to come up with a system that would last us anywhere from eight to 12 years,” says Patrick McHugh, Hilton Hawaiian Village’s MIS director. “You wouldn’t want to change your building’s plumbing every three to four years, so why wouldn’t you want to build your networking infrastructure to last?”

After checking the prices for various alternatives, McHugh discovered that a fibre network would cost slightly more than a UTP Category 5 copper system: approximately US$120,000 versus US$112,000. But fibre offered an important cost-savings benefit. The technology allowed McHugh to slash the number of wiring closets used by his network from 13 to three active and two passive (only three have electricity), saving precious space in a corner of the world where cheap real estate is as rare as snow.

“We use a central zoning technique,” says McHugh. The network’s main switches are located in the computer room. Cables run to patch panels in each department. “If you have to put new runs in, you only have to run them to the patch panel,” he says.

Fibre offered another bonus as well. Because of space restraints, the previous network’s hubs were located in mechanical rooms and subject to heat and other adverse environmental conditionals. “If we had gone with fast Ethernet copper, we would have been forced to move the switches into actual work spaces,” says McHugh. The organization would have then faced the extra trouble and expense of disguising and soundproofing the hardware, at a cost of several thousand dollars for a series of special enclosures.

McHugh says the network’s rollout has been trouble-free. The only glitch was a missing DOS driver, which was needed to run some legacy applications. “3M stepped in and wrote us a custom driver, so that problem was quickly solved,” says McHugh. “I have no regrets about going with fibre. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

And initial success invites bigger plans for the future. The resort expects to bring an additional 133 desktops into the fibre network by the end of this year. The company is also looking into the possibility of using fibre to provide multimedia services and high-speed Internet connectivity to its guests. “But that’s farther down the road,” says McHugh.

A fibre future

Although fibre is rapidly joining the networking mainstream, Cahners In-Stat Group analyst Vickers doesn’t foresee a rapid abandonment of copper technology.

“Since most organizations have huge investments in copper cable, there won’t be any sudden move to rip out existing wiring and replace it with fibre to the desktop,” she says. Vickers believes that most organizations will wait until their existing networks’ capacity is pushed to the breaking point before switching to fibre. “For now, most desktop fibre purchases will be for new installations rather than upgrades,” says Vickers.

Organizations that do adopt fibre to the desktop over the next few years will have to pay close attention to the people they hire to install and maintain their networks.

“Although fibre is more reliable than copper, it can be tougher to fix,” says Bill Lennon, a Ph.D. engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. “A lot of technicians are just moving into fibre, so it can be tricky finding people who fully understand how to maintain and repair fibre networks.”

But Vickers believes that despite a few growing pains, fibre to the desktop is destined to become the predominant local area network media. “It’s the future of networking,” she says. “The outlook is clear.”