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Extreme makeover

Carleton University is currently undergoing a major structured cabling upgrade in which 20 buildings within the Ottawa campus are being outfitted with fiber and Cat 6 twisted pair. The goal is to future-proof the school for many years to come.

July 1, 2005  

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Carleton University is giving its network an extreme makeover. Network cabling to 20 academic and administrative buildings across the university’s Ottawa campus is being replaced with optical fiber and Category 6 twisted pair, which along with new network equipment will prepare the university for the bandwidth demands it is likely to face for many years to come.

At the same time, the university is taking advantage of the upgrade project to introduce a highly structured cabling design and a cable-management system that should make the new network easier to maintain.

Ralph Michaelis, the university’s chief information officer, says a look at the level of activity and expected growth in Carleton’s network traffic a few years ago made it obvious that upgrades would be needed. The only question was whether to settle for incremental improvements or implement a wholesale replacement of the existing infrastructure.

“We could either augment what we had or rebuild it,” Michaelis says, “and we took the option to rebuild it.”

The university put out a request for proposals in the summer of 2004, and awarded the contract in September. Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Inc. is the system integrator, Cisco Systems Inc. is the main supplier of networking equipment, Ottawa-based Com-Net Inc. is the cabling contractor and CommScope Solutions Canada Inc is supplying the Systimax brand cable.

The initial project does not include all buildings on the Carleton campus. Michaelis says the 20 buildings to be covered by the new network are “really what we call the core of our campus.”

Carleton’s residences won’t get new cabling for now, nor will its athletic buildings, a day care centre, or commercial buildings in which the university leases space to businesses that operate on campus. Cabling in the residences is scheduled for some incremental modifications, he says, and they will be connected into the new network.

The upgrade will replace an assortment of older infrastructure. “Some of it was Category 3 vintage, 15 years old or more,” notes Bob Kostash, sales director at cable supplier CommScope.

Michaelis says the new network will have a highly structured design. “We can now isolate a building,” he says. “We can now keep the traffic to a building instead of broadcasting it to the network.”

The core network is single-mode optical fiber, connecting all buildings to the university’s data centre through four points of presence (POPs). From the entry point to each building, contractors are pulling two fibers to each wiring closet.

Laser-optimized multimode fiber will be lit up first in most cases, providing up to 10 gigabits per second of bandwidth, which is suitable for current needs in most cases. But to provide for the future, Carleton is installing single-mode fiber alongside the multimode.

Kostash says the laser-optimized multimode fiber is designed specifically for 10-Gigabit Ethernet transmission using short-wavelength light sources, which are the cheapest to produce.

That choice is designed to minimize the university’s bill for electronics and optics for the fiber portion of the network.

The single-mode fiber inside buildings is more than Carleton needs in most cases today, but “they don’t basically want to go back and do this again in 10 years,” Kostash says.

“They’re building what we call a next-generation network,” says Marc-Andre Boissonneault, partner and vice-president at cabling contractor Com-Net.

Single-mode fiber being used in the project is TeraSpeed zero-water-peak cable, Kostash says, meaning it is designed to eliminate a dramatic increase in attenuation around the 1,400-nanometer wavelength range that occurs with most single-mode fiber because of residual water ions in the glass. That brings a significant bonus in bandwidth, he says.

Future-proofing strategy

Carleton chose to run Category 6 cabling to its desktops. “It really is a future-proofing strategy for the most part,” says Michaelis, adding that the price of the Cat 6 cable was attractive enough compared to the more common Category 5e that it seemed reasonable to pay the premium. He expects the cabling will last through two or three generations of network electronics.

The cabling industry has recently started talking about Category 6 Augmented, a variant of the Cat 6 standard designed to support 10-Gigabit Ethernet over distances up to 100 meters. The standard is not yet complete, but some cable suppliers, including CommScope, are selling pre-standard cable that meets the specifications the standard is expected to lay out.

When Carleton made its cabling decisions, though, “6a was still in the R&D labs,” Kostash says. He adds that plain Category 6 cable is expected to be able to support 10-Gigabit Ethernet over limited distances.

Michaelis says he also thought about fiber to the desktop, but “every time I’ve looked at it, it’s been much more expensive, and I think Category 6 will effectively meet our requirements for years to come, decades to come.”

Four buildings on campus were rewired with Category 5e cable in the last few years, says Boissonneault, and this will not be replaced — only the fiber running to the telecommunications rooms in those buildings is being redone.

Com-Net proposed using CableSolve, a cable infrastructure management system from Cormant Technologies Inc. of Manila. Boissonneault explains that bar codes are placed on every cable.

Using handheld PCs, technicians can scan these bar codes and identify any cable instantly from information stored in a database that catalogues where every cable runs and where it is terminated. The software can also track work orders, trouble tickets and changes, and an audit module can check connections.

While cable management systems have existed for years, Boissonneault notes, adoption has been slow, and one of the problems with many such systems is that as soon as someone forgets to record a change, the system becomes unreliable.

By cataloguing everything as the network is installed, and by using a system that makes it easy to update records from handheld devices on the spot, Carleton and Com-Net are hoping to create a system that will remain up-to-date and useful. “It makes it a lot easier to maintain the accuracy of the information,” says Boissonneault.

“We’ve got lots of cable, and in some cases existing fiber down there, and we’ve got no idea what’s on it,” Michaelis says. The infrastructure management system is meant to ensure that problem won’t recur with the new network cabling.

No tunneling required

When it comes to connections among its buildings, Carleton has an advantage in its extensive network of tunnels. With one exception, all major buildings on the campus are connected, mainly by pedestrian tunnels. Next to the pedestrian tunnels are service tunnels, through which the inter-building cabling is run, Michaelis says. That means no tunneling or trenching to install the new infrastructure.

Completely rewiring the campus network does mean some disruption within buildings, though. Com-Net will eventually be installing new cable trays and cabling throughout some 20 buildings.

In some cases, structural modifications are needed to bring telecommunications rooms up to requirements or make room for cable runs. The campus is 60 years old — though not all of its buildings are of that vintage — so finding space for modern cabling infrastructure is a challenge, Michaelis says. The university’s own staff are doing necessary construction work to prepare for the cabling.

Michaelis and Boissonneault both say the greatest challenge of the project so far has been co-ordinating all the different parties, including building users, to get the disruptive inside cabling work done.

As much as possible, Michaelis says, the work will be scheduled in summer when the campus is quiet. He is also trying to co-ordinate cable installation with other renovation projects wherever that makes sense.

So far, the new core network is in place and operating, and by the end of August new cabling will be complete in six buildings, Michaelis says. The plan calls for work to be completed within three years, and Michaelis and Boissonneault both say everything seems to be on target to meet that goal.

Grant Buckler is a Kingston, Ont. freelance writer who specializes in IT and telecommunications issues. He can be reached at