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App Attacks

Emerging bandwidth hogs such as video and HPC could kick the industry ahead, particularly in the Category 6a and 40G Ethernet space. Below we chronicle several network and software enhancements to watch.


May 1, 2009  


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In the past if Tom Huegerich, vice president of business development at network integrator ADC Telecommunications Inc., needed to meet with people at manufacturing facilities, he would book a flight and set aside travel time.

Now, Huegerich is more likely to stage a video conference instead. He certainly is not alone and that could change the game for the network and cabling industry.

Huegerich figures that video conferencing makes sense. It is substantially less expensive than travel, it is less time-consuming, and the equipment is common, so in time he could use it for even more meetings.

“I see that working externally as well, with our customers,” he says, adding a generational angle to his assessment: people now entering the workforce often turn to video-based services such as YouTube and video chat in their work and personal lives. “We’ve given them the tools …. That puts tremendous pressure on the network.”

Some say the pressure is rising. According to the Centre for Integrated Photonics Ltd. (CIP Technologies), a U. K.-based network equipment maker, Internet demand is expected to reach 160 Terabits per second by 2010.

That tops network requirements from 1998 through to 2008. Multimedia and online social systems (read: YouTube and Facebook) are the main bandwidth hogs. “The world’s consumers are facing a bandwidth famine,” CIP said in a press statement.

But in discussions with other industry observers and insiders, it seems CIP might be overstating the case. In fact, many people think we have reached a bandwidth plateau in certain respects and in fact, most LANs have enough room to satisfy users’ needs for some time. Still, work is afoot in data centres to beef up capacity to handle new kinds of computer requirements.

Cable installation experts and manufacturers say that in the near term, the sector is doing double duty: helping customers get the most out of the cable plants already installed, and watching the horizon for the next technological boost.

Category 6a out of the bag: Now that Category 6a is genuinely available for people seeking 10G Ethernet connectivity over copper, companies are beginning to investigate it for future needs.

“What’s next is for people to start implementing it and getting to the point where the applications are available to make use of its potential,” says Rob Stevenson, communications division manager at Guild Electric Ltd., an electrical contractor in Toronto. “For most business applications, gigabit is plenty.”

Video could change that. Interactive conferencing sessions can chew through plenty of bandwidth in short order, setting the stage for a shift in the way people consider Category 6a.

“Right now 10G meets a lot of requests for server virtualization,” says Paul Kish, the St. Laurent, Que.-based director of systems and standards at cable maker Belden Inc. “Eventually that technology will go to your desktop …. You might have a high resolution outlet to your desktop for video conferencing, and to do the same with other participants 10G would be the one use.”

For high-definition video system maker Z-Band Inc., anything to help drive down the costs of HD distribution is welcome. But according to principal and vice president of sales Dick Snyder, these days cost savings come from using common cable technology combined with Z-Band’s RF system, which eschews coaxial connections and relies on twisted-pair infrastructure alone.

“We can provide this bandwidth on Category 5e,” Snyder says. “We don’t need shielded cable, enhanced Category 6a or Category 6e …. We suggest customers put in Category 6.” Anything more would be overkill, he adds.

Fiber price issues: While the industry works out the best ways to take advantage of the latest copper cable technology, the sector also waits for critical mass to weigh in on fiber-optic electronics, which continue to be substantially pricier than copper equipment. “It’s the laser interface that costs the most money,” Kish says.

The price and the fact that copper cables have advanced well beyond their humble telephone roots put fiber on the back burner for companies seeking LAN enhancements.

But for companies planning new data centre deployments or improvements, the emerging standard for 40G is noteworthy. Introduced as 802.2ba in 2007, the standard is expected to be ratified by the IEEE in 2010.

“There’s a limitation on how fast you can process the information,” Kish says. “You can’t do it on a single stream of light. The pulses become very narrow and the differentiation is too small in time. Even right now, they’re talking about parallel data streams,” with eight fibers in a multi-mode configuration (four downstream, four upstream).

According to Kish, 40G will get its first foothold in the data centre market, because data centre operators need speed to handle increasing customer processes for relatively new concepts such as cloud computing, wherein a customer’s applications, data and server infrastructure reside offsite.

“There’s a genuine need for this in the data centre.”

Will fiber ever overtake copper across all networks? That is a question that occasionally crops up and the answers still seems to be “no”, or at least, “not soon”. Copper keeps getting better, it is relatively inexpensive, and most cable plant operators have more copper infrastructure than fiber in the first place; they will continue to look to standards organizations to help them get the most out of their existing investments.

Category 6a was ratified just last year by the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA). Although the industry is hearing plenty of noise about Category 7, the European standard, for the most part cable installers and manufacturers seem focused on working with customers towards implementing Category 6a where it makes sense.

“We’re seeing on a global basis movement to Category 7 and shielded product,” Huegerich says, adding that some multinational clients prefer to standardize on a single cable infrastructure. But for the most part here in North America, “We haven’t seen a major move towards that.”

In the near term, the industry seems more focused on cable management than ever before. “In the data centre, it’s all about space,” says Stevenson, a member of the CNS Editorial Advisory Board. “Anything to minimize that and simplify management is coming on strong.”

While modularized assemblies have been on the market for some time, the benefit of streamlining 12 separate cables into a single, manageable connector is now proving to be a powerful incentive to invest in the technology. “With some of the large switches, there’s quite a congestion of cables in the front,” Stevenson says.

Cable dressing would become a non-issue if the move towards wireless networking continues.

“The trend I see is companies running fiber to a floor to an indoor antenna, and I think we’re going to see an awful lot of wireless,” says Huegerich. “It frees up the end user to move around.”

However, do not expect to see wireless completely take over. “A lot of people are wired in and will continue use copper.” In his opinion, the industry will increasingly combine fiber, copper and wireless for a good mix of speed, affordability and mobility. “We really see the three melding together in the future.”

Technologies to watch include Wi-Max and the fourth generation mobile broadband standard LTE (Long Term Evolution) for wide-area wireless networking. On the local level, IEEE 802.11n continues to provide substantial bandwidth, up to 600 Mbps, but is all that space necessary? According to Peter Sharp, senior telecommunications consultant at Giffels Associates Ltd./IBI Group in Toronto, most users on a wireless LAN seem content with well below 5 Mbps, the speed users usually get by the time the network is done processing the overhead.

“It’s tough to say that the advancements in the technology realized over the last couple years are truly beneficial to the typical user,” he says. “The cable engine
ers have worked miracles to get cables to pass 10 gigabits …. However, from the marketing side of the industry they’ve done themselves a great disservice. Whenever they make progress, suddenly everything they did in the past is no good.

“Where they are making serious progress is being able to deliver more power over the Ethernet connection. We’re now getting to the point where we’ll be able to power a laptop over Ethernet.”

The IEEE is working on enhancing the standard for Power over Ethernet — 802.3at — to provide power up to 24 watts per port, which is up from about 13, and better power management capabilities. The 802.3at task force attained project authorization in January.

Sharp is also watching the move away from glass and towards plastic fiber-optic cables, which could do away with the signal degradation associated with glass, and might be more efficient for manufacturers. Whereas glass comes in pieces that need to be put together, plastic fiber could be constructed continuously.

“Because it’s the starts and stops that cause the costs, with a continuous process, you’re more likely to get the costs down,” Sharp says.

The economy: Costs are a constant issue across the entire networking spectrum, especially now that we are in a global financial downturn. Will customers pull back on cable advancements to save money?

Kish from Belden figures organizations might invest even more in networking, because they’re looking for ways to offset travel expenses through enhanced video conferencing and collaboration systems. “You’ll need better networking to take the place of travel.”

Stevenson says he’s noticed a lag in Category 6a implementations, but that might have more to do with the price of Category 6a than the state of the economy. “To the extent that 6a is still significantly more expensive than Category 6, companies concerned about expenditures are going to be more reluctant.”

Sharp says the economic situation won’t have a major effect. Yes, network designers will come under greater scrutiny as people look for cost savings. “But do I think it will cause a correction in the marketplace? Absolutely not. There’s a very small percentage of the market that scrutinizes the designs, the requirements the IT group forwards to the facilities group. The vast majority take whatever the IT department says as right, and the IT department will always ask for the sky.”

Asked where the inevitable network bottleneck resides today, most people say it’s in the “last mile” of connectivity — the link between the customer’s premises and the network service provider’s point of presence. But people have different ideas about the applications that could stress this pinched connection down the line.

For Huegerich, high-performance computing (HPC), which sees organizations farming out high-level number crunching to computers accessed via data links, could become the next big bandwidth hog. “That will drive infrastructure investments,” he says.

Stevenson says cloud computing could be the technology to watch. “To my way of thinking, the wide area connection is going to be the bottleneck in those situations.”

Video, HPC and cloud computing — any and all of them could be what forces the industry forward into new cable management solutions, 40G in the data centre and Category 6a in the LAN. But no one really knows which application will kick the sector ahead.

Regardless, no matter how big a pipe the industry designs, “there’s always someone ready to build something to take advantage of it,” Stevenson says.

Stefan Dubowski is a freelance writer in Ottawa. You can reach him via sdubowski@rogers.com.

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Interactive conferencing sessions can chew through plenty of bandwidth in short order, setting the stage for a shift in the way people concider Category 6a.

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Robot Telepathy And Other Future Network Apps

Celebrating its 125th anniversary in March, the IEEE brought together technology experts to discuss emerging technologies, including human-robot telepathy, wireless power transmission and efficient mobile phone chips. For hints on the kinds of applications that could one day inform network design and cable requirements, consider these ideas from various IEEE panel members.

Robot-human telepathy: Dr. Miguel Nicolelis and his team at Duke University Medical Center have created a chip that would let the human brain communicate directly with a robot, without touch or a direct line of sight.

Wireless power: Implemented by Dr. Katie Hall, chief technology officer of Watertown, Mass.-based WiTricity Corp., this technology wirelessly transmits power to electronic devices over a one-metre distance.

Longer talk time: Krishna Palem from the George Brown School of Engineering at Rice University has developed a “probabilistic” chip that trades precise calculations for reduced power usage, so mobile phones would need to be charged every few weeks instead of every few days.

Better device interoperability: The “Dynamic Composable Computing” solution from Dr. RoyWatt (Intel Corp.) allows computers to share displays, networks, and processing power, so if your mobile handset didn’t have a camera, it would be able to connect to and borrow the camera of another handset, given permission.