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Cover Story: Innovation Highway

Author Grant Buckler examines six initiatives that have moved beyond the blueprint stage. They range from this summer's ratification of Category 6 to a gadget that helps network technicians get at the backs of patch panels.


September 1, 2002  


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The interesting thing about technology is that someone is always thinking of something new. Though network cabling has been around for a while now, the innovation has not stopped. Here, in no particular order, are a half dozen interesting ideas that are either new or just starting to come into their own at the moment.

1. CATEGORY 6 — AT LAST

We’ve talked about it for years, but in mid-June, the Category 6 cabling standard was finally ratified. Allowing twisted-pair copper cable to support network speeds as high as two gigabits per second, Category 6 is expected to further delay the day when bandwidth demands force copper to give way to fiber. But will its ratification mean a sudden rush to the new standard? Not likely.

First, most cable vendors have sold pre-standard Category 6 cabling for months already. “Category 6 products have been on the market for quite a while,” says Paul Kish, senior product manager at NORDX/CDT in Montreal and chair of the Telecommunications Industry Association’s TR-42 engineering committee, which deals with cabling standards. As usually happens with standards, Category 6 has taken a long time to complete, and some weren’t willing to wait. Equipment vendors launched products compliant with what the standard looked likely to be, and many customers bought.

A survey by Sage Research Inc. of Natick, MA, last year projected Category 6 cabling would increase from seven per cent of campus backbones and four per cent of other cabling in 2001 to 12 per cent and 15 per cent respectively by 2003.

The Category 6 specifications have barely changed in the months leading up to ratification, so little or no work is needed to bring pre-standard products into line. Kish notes, though, that while existing products generally meet Category 6 standards when a network is limited to one vendor’s offerings, mixing different brands may cause problems. That problem should now begin going away.

In fact, some existing products already exceed Category 6 standards. An example is Avaya Inc.’s Systimax Gigaspeed XL Solution, a suite of network products that Mike Barnick, solutions marketing director for Avaya’s Systimax business in Atlanta, says will exceed Category 6 performance when installed as an end-to-end package and at least meet it in combination with other vendors’ products. Barnick says Avaya’s proprietary design tools help give the products electrical performance 400 per cent better than Category 6 specifications.

Kish says some large customers waited for the standard to be ratified before adopting it, so a small surge in Category 6 installations is possible. But most will not rush in. Moving to Category 6 will largely be an economic decision, and especially given recent economic gloom, many buyers will take their time.

2. YOUR PATCH PANEL IS WATCHING YOU

Moves, adds and changes are the bane of the network administrator’s existence. Rearranging complex networks to accommodate new employees and relocations is time-consuming and prone to error. Managed patch panels aim to remove some of the pain from the process.

RiT Technologies, an Israeli company, claims to have pioneered managed patch panels about eight years ago. Recently others, including Avaya Inc. and Panduit Corp., have introduced managed patch panels.

The panels use sensors to detect which ports are connected to which and automatically update a database. Motti Kleinmann, president of subsidiary RiT Inc. in Mahwah, NJ, says that while some software exists for recording patch panel connections, the requirement that someone enter the data means information usually gets out of date. Managed patch panels do the job for you.

The panels also walk technicians through moves, adds and changes. A network administrator sitting at a Windows PC can specify a change by pointing and clicking on a diagram, then send the instructions to the panel. When a technician is ready to repatch, the panel indicates a connection to be made by lighting LEDs above the two ports, or indicates a patchcord to be removed by flashing the LEDs.

Dundee Securities Corp. in Toronto installed RiT’s PatchView panels during a recent office move because “the wiring had become an absolute nightmare,” says Paul Stapleton, Dundee’s chief technology officer. They have greatly simplified Dundee’s cabling, Stapleton says.

Kleinmann says managed patch panels add about $25 (U.S.) per port to the initial cost of a network — Panduit quotes a similar figure — but can save about $80 (U.S.) per user per year in the long run.

3. POWER TO THE LAN

One roadblock to wider adoption of Internet Protocol (IP) telephony is that unlike conventional telephones, which get their electrical power from the phone wires, IP phones must get power from somewhere else, which usually means plugging an adapter into a wall outlet. There isn’t always an outlet where you want to put a phone, and businesses don’t like the idea of telephones that stop working when power fails.

One solution is to provide electrical current over the network, just as the phone system does. A group of manufacturers are working on a standard for doing this, called Power Over LAN. And while IP Phones are a major driver for the idea, other devices could benefit.

The standard provides about 12.5 watts of power at the end of a 100-metre cable run. That’s enough for devices like IP phones and wireless network transceivers, but not enough that network cables must adhere to the same installation standards as electrical cables.

Amir Lehr, vice-president of marketing for PowrDsine, a Hod Hasharon, Israel-based developer of Power Over LAN devices, says the technology is also good for powering wireless LAN transceivers, which often must be mounted on ceilings where no power is available. He adds that while Power Over LAN is not enough to run a personal computer, it could power the computer’s memory to preserve data in a sudden power loss.

LAN power is supplied either by an attachment to the network switch, called a midspan device, or by a special switch that includes Power Over LAN support. The 802.3af committee responsible for the standard has completed most of its work and the standard should be official this fall, Lehr says.

4. RETHINKING CABLE COVERINGS

Plenum-rated cable — designed to run through heating ducts — is receiving some scrutiny.

Canada’s national building code requires plenum-rated cable to pass a test called FT4. Ontario and the city of Vancouver impose a stricter standard called FT6, which is comparable to U.S. requirements. FT6 requires cable to withstand more than four times the ignition heat that FT4 requires, under stricter conditions.

A task force of the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes is studying a proposal to require FT6 compliance in the next version of the building code, due for publication in 2005, says Fred Dawson, regulatory affairs manager for fluoro products at DuPont Canada Inc.

DuPont would like such a change. It manufactures, under the trade name Teflon FEP, fluorinated ethylene propylene used to insulate some plenum-rated cable. Dawson says most cable that meets FT6 tests uses FEP to insulate the primary conductors, often with a jacket of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Cable that only meets FT4 can use PVC or other materials for insulation. PVC melts at less than 200 degrees Celsius, whereas it takes more than 600 Celsius and high levels of oxygen to ignite FEP.

Some say PVC has another strike against it. Remember the concern a couple of years ago over miniblinds made with PVC? The worry was that toxic materials, including lead, in PVC endangered children and household pets. Lead is used to stabilize plasticizers used in making flexible PVC products, says Frank Bisbee, editor of the Gainesville, Florida-based cabling e-zine www.wireville.com.

Last April, the European Parliament voted to ban lead additives in PVC, promote PVC substitutes and require separate collection of waste PVC. The issue has had little attention here, but could provide further impetus for a move toward FEP.

5. A NEW SPIN ON PATCH PANELS

Someti
mes seemingly small innovations are worth noting. An example is a gadget that helps network technicians get at the backs of patch panels.

Bob Laukonis was selling network patch cords when a customer asked for a way to mount a patch panel to make it easier to get at the back. Laukonis set out to find one — and couldn’t. So he invented one.

The usual ways to get behind a patch panel are to pull it out from the wall or use a swing-out bracket, Laukonis says. But there isn’t always room to pull the panel out, and technicians dislike swing-out brackets because they must support the panel with one hand while punching down cables with the other.

Some technicians solve the problem with rack-mounted panels by unscrewing them, flipping them over and screwing them into position backwards while they work. So Laukonis decided to mount the panel on pivots at each side so it could flip over.

Laukonis and his wife Dee launched the EZ Mount bracket at a BICSI trade show in Florida in January 1998, and the reception convinced them they had a viable product. Since then their company, InnoData Ltd. of Derry, NH, has launched several variations on the basic bracket.

Laukonis says InnoData has sold about 4,000 EZ Mount brackets. The products have had little exposure in Canada, but that is about to change as InnoData signs representatives here. The units list at $239 (U.S.).

6. THE FIBER CONNECTOR JUNGLE

Just as there were once a hodgepodge of different ways to connect twisted-pair cable before the RJ-45 connector became ubiquitous, today there are multiple connector designs for fiber. “We’ve got a whole bunch of them, and some of them are becoming proprietary,” observes John Bakowski, product manager for cabling and connectivity at Bell Canada. “There are too many options available to you.”

Bakowski believes the Small Form Factor (SFF) connector is gaining popularity and might emerge as the standard way of connecting optical fiber.

There are signs of a move in that direction, particularly among network equipment manufacturers. Ian White, director of research and development for the Optical Connectivity Division of OFS, a Norcross, Georgia-based optical fiber manufacturer, says companies such as Lucent and Nortel Networks Corp. are moving to small form factor connectors in to conserve space on optical network devices.

Elsewhere in long-haul and enterprise networks, the shift is not so evident. White says older ST and SC connectors are still most popular, though Peter Schweiger, North American optical network testing product manager for Palo Alto, California-based Agilent Technologies Inc., says his company’s test equipment supports about 20 different fiber connectors and will probably need to do so for some time to come.

The LC type of small form factor connector, developed by Lucent, seems to be most popular with network equipment makers. The two-fiber MT-RJ connector, developed by AMP Inc., looks as if it will prove more popular for enterprise networks. Meanwhile, the established types will not go away any time soon.

Grant Buckler has written about information technology and telecommunications since 1980. He is now a freelance writer and editor living in Kingston, ON.


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