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Cover Story: Hot Technologies

What are the technology developments to watch in the network cabling field this year? With the help of Cabling Systems' Editorial Advisory Board and other industry insiders, we picked five. Here's a rundown (in no particular order) ...

April 1, 2002  

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Wireless Networking

Wireless networking has found a niche, or perhaps more than one niche. It allows workers to move around within the workplace and remain connected. At IBM Canada Ltd.’s software laboratory in Markham, ON, for instance, wireless coverage throughout the building lets employees send and receive e-mail or explore the Internet whether they are in their own cubicles, in meeting rooms or in eating areas.

Wireless is also emerging as a way for mobile workers outside the office to get connected. At some U.S. airports and hotels, and a few hotels in Western Canada, wireless network access points in public areas let any notebook user with a wireless Ethernet card — and a subscription to the service — log on.

But the current wireless network standard, 802.11b, is limited to 11 megabits per second. That is fast compared to early wireless networks, which ran at about a fifth of that speed. However, with 100-megabit connections to the desktop increasingly common, it may not be fast enough for many users.

Do not despair, though. New wireless standards will bring the speed of wireless connections into direct competition with those of hard-wired links.

Early this year, we should see the first wireless networking products based on a new standard called 802.11a. It will transmit data at speeds up to 54 megabits per second — another fivefold jump in speed.

While the good news about 802.11a is speed, the bad news is that because the new standard uses a different frequency — five gigahertz instead of 802.11b’s 2.5-gigahertz band — the two are incompatible. Equipment designed for one standard will not work with the other, even at the lower speed. That is likely to create a chicken-and-egg situation hindering the adoption of 802.11a.

“There’s going to be a huge pile of material nobody wants to throw away,” says Chris Henningsen, VP of marketing at Intersil Corp., an Irvine, CA manufacturer of wireless networking hardware.

The answer could be a new 802.11g standard. Still under development, 802.11g also provides for speeds up to 54 Mbps. Yet unlike 802.11a, it works in the same 2.5-GHz frequency band as 802.11b, so the gear can work together in a single network. Henningsen expects that will make 802.11g attractive to many users.

However, there will be a place for 802.11a. Patrick Guay, VP and GM of the LAN infrastructure division at networking vendor 3Com Corp. of Santa Clara, CA sees 802.11g as a stepping stone and 802.11a as the long-term answer. He says the latter supports more communications channels and its shorter range allows for more access points in densely populated work areas. Henningsen agrees that these advantages will make 802.11a the choice for some applications, but believes 802.11g’s backward compatibility will be a strong selling point.

Voice over IP

Sometimes new technologies take a while to emerge. A case in point is Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). Once seen as a way to make dirt-cheap phone calls over the Internet, VoIP ran up against declining long-distance charges and quality of service issues. Within the enterprise, though, it has more promise.

A study conducted by the Telecom Applications Research Alliance (TARA) in Halifax and the Halifax office of DMR Consulting Group Inc. last February — sponsored by Cisco Systems Canada Inc., which sells VoIP technology — concluded that moving from a PBX or Centrex service to VoIP can save 18 to 30 per cent of an organization’s telephony costs annually.

However, admits Terry Hallett, TARA’s director of research and technology, this presumes the organization has a solid IP network that can handle the added load of VoIP, and that this network reaches every employee who needs a telephone. Even more important, it presumes the organization needs a new phone system anyway.

VoIP is well worth looking at if your existing phone system is obsolete. But, says Ian Angus, president of consulting firm Angus Telemanagement Group Inc. in Ajax, ON, “the problem is, it’s almost certainly not obsolete.” PBXs have long lifespans, and especially in tough economic times most businesses are reluctant to replace them.

Still, for those equipping new offices or faced with a real need to replace old systems, VoIP is an option. Savings from moving to a single network are part of the attraction; the other part is that integrating voice and data helps make new applications possible. And whereas VoIP technology a few years ago could not compete with the features of traditional phone systems, Angus says, today’s IP PBXs offer as much or even a little more than traditional technology. He also notes that PBX manufacturers are offering VoIP add-ons for their existing products, and anyone seeking voice-data integration should consider these.

VoIP is also playing a growing role in the wide area. While most of us will not be chatting over the Internet in the foreseeable future, major Canadian telephone companies have started to offer virtual private network (VPN) services using IP. These IP-VPNs let businesses route any combination of data, voice and even video traffic among offices, and offer particular cost savings for those with heavy traffic between two or more major locations in different cities.

Ethernet Industrial Protocol

Traditionally, Ethernet has mainly been limited to the office for two major reasons: a troublesome technical issue and cost concerns.

The technical issue is that Ethernet’s way of directing traffic allows packets of data to collide; when this happens, the node that sent each packet waits a random length of time before sending again. This works well enough in offices, where tiny delays in network traffic do not matter much. It does not work well on a factory floor where a fraction of a second’s delay could cause an industrial robot to make the wrong move and ruin expensive work in progress.

This problem can be solved by using switches, giving each device its own clear path to the nearest switch, explains David Van Gompel, a technology consultant in industrial networking at Rockwell Automation, a unit of Rockwell International Corp. in Milwaukee, WI. Until recently, switching was too costly, and the cost of installing the necessary circuitry in industrial devices combined with this to price Ethernet out of reach. Now the cost of high-speed Ethernet switches and other components has dropped to the point where Ethernet is gaining ground in industrial automation.

Van Gompel explains that hundreds of specialized application protocols sit on top of Ethernet and Internet Protocol (IP) to support particular jobs. Examples are File Transfer Protocol (FTP) and the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) used in the World Wide Web. The Ethernet Industrial Protocol, or Ethernet IP, is such a protocol designed for factory-floor automation. In essence, it is the application layer used in the specialized industrial networking standards DeviceNet and ControlNet, adapted to work with TCP/IP.

Rockwell and other companies have already started to introduce hardware that supports Ethernet IP. Van Gompel says Ethernet is already in fairly wide use in the industry for “human interface devices” such as terminals, where human operators monitor factory-floor processes. However, in the last year Ethernet has started to be used for controlling devices. Van Gompel estimates that about 150,000 Ethernet IP devices are installed and says “it’s still early in the adoption game.”

Cabling for Ethernet IP has some unique quirks. For instance, connectors need to withstand dusty, corrosive environments, so RJ-45 connectors with tighter tolerances, protective outer casings and more gold plating on the contacts are used. Work is also under way on an industrial cabling standard, tentatively called Category 5i, for use in factory-floor Ethernets.

Metropolitan Dark Fiber

Want to get canned peas cheap? Buy them in bulk. Want to get metropolitan-area bandwidth cheap? Buy it in bulk. For organizations with large enough bandwidth requirements, leasing “dark” fiber can be a significant money-saver.

You lease dark fiber the way
you rent an unfurnished apartment: you pay just for the bandwidth, which comes without the equipment to transmit data through it as light beams — hence “dark.”

Network builders originally thought they could make money by leasing dark fiber to emerging competitors in the local and long-distance telephone markets, but a glut of long-haul bandwidth and the collapse of many local competitors sent demand plunging. So those with bandwidth to sell turned to enterprise customers. Larger companies are buying, says David Willis, VP of global networking strategies for the Stamford, Connecticut-based research firm Meta Group. Willis says the bandwidth-hungry financial services industry has been especially quick to jump on the bandwagon.

The cost savings are impressive. Willis says the cost of bandwidth works out to about US$240 per megabit per second (Mbps) per month with a traditional T1 connection, dropping to about US$27 per Mbps per month with a higher-capacity OC3 circuit. An organization leasing 40 gigabits of dark fiber capacity, on the other hand, pays about $1.60 per Mbps per month.

Of course, this only works if you need that much capacity. Willis says dark fiber starts to make sense if an organization needs at least 10 Mbps between facilities in a single metro area.

Nor is dark fiber for the faint of heart. Organizations that use it are “to some extent becoming their own service provider,” says Willis. That calls for networking expertise, and it is not the sort of expertise that even technically sophisticated organizations usually have. The common solution is to hire outside consultants to help set up the system and bring internal staff up to speed.

The private sector is not alone in exploring dark-fiber connections. Municipalities and school boards are naturals for this approach because they often need to network multiple locations within a city or region. IMS Experts-Conseils of Cap-de-la-Madelaine, QC helps public-sector organizations build their own community networks. Robert Proulx, president of IMS, says projects are under way across the country.

Not only do these networks provide cities with almost unlimited low-cost bandwidth for their own use, but they can be opened up to local businesses and residents, helping give the community a high-tech advantage. For instance Maurice Gallant, CIO for the city of Fredericton, thinks a community network project helped lure the National Research Council’s electronic commerce centre to his city.

10-Gigabit Ethernet

Ethernet started in the 1980s with a capacity of 10 Mbps. That was fast back then; the most popular local-area network technology at the time, Arcnet, operated at about a fifth the speed. How times have changed. Now 100 Mbps to the desktop is common, and many backbones run the newest standard, Gigabit Ethernet.

It is not over yet. Work is nearly complete on a 10-Gigabit Ethernet standard. If all goes well, it should be ratified in June, says Bob Grow, chair of the 10-Gigabit Ethernet Alliance in Newport Beach, CA, an industry body devoted to promoting the new standard.

The uses of 10-Gigabit Ethernet will extend beyond the office. Metropolitan-area networks linking offices over optical fiber will use it, allowing end-to-end Ethernet connections between desktops and servers in different locations — up to 40 kilometres apart using single-mode fiber.

Within the office, 10-Gigabit Ethernet will be primarily a backbone technology. “Aggregation has always been the first application for the new Ethernet technologies,” Grow says. With Gigabit Ethernet beginning to move into desktop connections, demands on backbones will increase, pushing them to 10-Gigabit.

Another key application will be in storage-area networks and network-attached storage. According to Bob Kostash, sales director for connectivity solutions at Avaya Canada Corp. in Markham, ON, 10-Gigabit Ethernet running over new higher-capacity multimode fiber will offer an alternative to Fiber Channel networking over costlier single-mode fiber. Besides using lower-cost fiber, Kostash says, this will spare organizations the complexity of dealing with both Ethernet and Fiber Channel technologies.

Existing multimode fiber will support 10-Gigabit Ethernet, but only over very short distances, and will not likely be used much for the new standard, Grow says. Newer multimode fiber will handle 10 gigabits over distances up to 300 metres.

Though the standard is not formally ratified, technical issues are essentially settled, says Mark Fishburn, chair of the 10-Gigabit Ethernet Alliance’s marketing committee, and manufacturers have started to launch 10-Gigabit gear. About 20 companies took part in a 10-Gigabit Ethernet technology demonstration at the NetWorld+Interop trade show last September.

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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