Optical LANs – Where They Have Been and Where They Are Going

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Fifty years ago, hospitals ran on tongue depressors and surgical masks. Today, they run on data. Considering the number of networks, connected devices, and data-rich applications now integral to patient care, is it any wonder hospital systems like Guthrie Health and Lake Nona Medical City are at the center of an optical telecom renaissance?

And it’s not just hospitals. Many of today’s biggest investments in hotels, casinos, high-rise buildings and college campuses are earmarked for optical networking technology. Consumers want fast access to cellular service, on-demand video streaming and a bevy of personalized applications. And all that voice-data-internet convergence takes bandwidth – a lot of it. Hence, more businesses are turning to fiber optics due to the virtually unlimited bandwidth, ease of installation, and lightweight composition.

 But – haven’t we tried this before?



What a Difference Twenty Years Makes

In the late ‘90s, carriers invested close to $100 billion in a nationwide fiber optic infrastructure. In 2000, nearly 20 million miles of optical fiber was installed in the United States. Upstart telecom carriers – the “fiber barons” – came out of the woodwork to feed an explosion of dot-com demand. Everyday businesses were also asked to make an investment. Connecting an office building to this fiber infrastructure meant simply running fiber cables vertically, from floor to floor.

But getting fiber in the horizontal (from the vertical to the desk) meant converting inventories of legacy hardware. That required swapping hundreds – sometimes thousands – of RJ-45 ports on desktop computers with optical ports. The cost-benefit equation didn’t add up for most companies.

For less money, they could tackle their bandwidth problems by running additional lines of CAT 5, 5e, 6, 6A, 7 or 8 copper. But the day has come when that’s no longer cost-effective, and space is limiting these additional copper runs – take a look inside any modern telecom closet and you’ll see. The equipment plugged into dozens of copper-based network connectors has increased the size of the average closet by a factor of three – meaning three times the space, energy use and HVAC costs.

Even if installers could continue adding copper indefinitely, it’s a wasteful way to satisfy the nation’s appetite for data, which according to Cisco’s latest visual networking index (VNI) forecast, has barely been whetted. Global IP traffic will increase threefold over the next five years. And Mobile 2 Mobile connections will account for half of the total traffic by 2022.

To meet that kind of growth, businesses will be required to rip and replace their copper cables year over year – a never-ending capital expenditure. And it’s worth mentioning that copper is heavy and cumbersome to install. Fiber, on the other hand, is stronger, lighter, more flexible and easier to pull. Thanks to advances in pre-terminated fiber cabling, optical installations are efficiently designed and cost-efficient. 

Fiber to the Edge

But what about those expensive hardware conversions that derailed fiber in the horizontal over a decade ago?  Cisco’s latest VNI forecast contains interesting figures on technology in decline–fixed wired computing devices. By 2022, for instance, fixed wired devices will account for just 29 percent of North American internet traffic.

With fewer LAN ports and desktop connections, the cost-benefit of converting to fiber in the horizontal is suddenly quite appealing.

Combine the decline in wired connectivity with the rise of mobile smart devices (more than half a billion new mobile devices and connections today) and Bring-Your-Own-Device policies (according to Gartner, 38 percent of global companies will stop providing devices to workers in the coming year), and the “tethered” office–beholden to RJ-45 port conversions – disappears. With fewer LAN ports and desktop connections, the cost-benefit of converting to fiber in the horizontal is suddenly quite appealing. 

Furthermore, the copper-based Ethernet links left unconverted in horizontal networks are far from benign. Unlike fiber, copper Ethernet is susceptible to electromagnetic interference (EMI) that can corrupt, degrade or even derail data transmission.

So businesses are using fiber optic converters to interconnect copper-Ethernet devices over fiber to ensure optimal data transmission. This is important in large facilities – like retail stores and distribution centers – where attenuation (loss in signal strength as cable length increases) limits copper-Ethernet network coverage to 100 meters or less; fiber provides two benefits here:

  • Low attenuation, meaning network coverage of kilometers instead of meters
  • No rise in attenuation as bandwidth increases, which means gigabit and 10-gigabit Ethernet connections are possible over greater distances, with lower-power transmitters.

Businesses are converting to fiber in the horizontal for another reason – security. Because optical fiber is dielectric (doesn’t transmit an electronic signal), it can’t be monitored remotely – whereas spying on a copper-based local area network (LAN) requires nothing more than a sensitive antenna. The design of fiber cabling also makes it quite difficult to tap into, and quite simple for a tap to be detected. Unlike copper, fiber is non-flammable – which may improve public safety in sensitive environments like hotels and hospitals.


An Optical Future

An Optical Future

With a fiber deep network such as Passive Optical LAN (PON), businesses can create a digital backbone that can support all your wired and wireless connections. Guthrie Health, for instance, found that a converged gigabit PON and distributed antenna system (DAS) was the ideal solution for supporting its flagship hospital’s entire IT infrastructure – including numerous wireless applications, wireless LAN, and cellular coverage for multiple operators.

Better yet, the passive optical architecture drove significant cost savings for Guthrie, while the converged deployment of PON and DAS shaved an additional 30 percent off the cost of the project. Perhaps best of all, the scalable fiber backbone ensures cost efficiency (and complete future readiness) in the years ahead.

And more facilities are turning to composite cabling – offering a combination of fiber and low voltage power in the same cable. By leveraging Power over Ethernet (PoE) and remote powering you can now run phones, surveillance cameras, wireless access points, and thousands of other devices – or provide back-up power for critical devices in emergency situations. 

Software-Defined Networking (SDN)

Software-defined networking which has become a huge trend in itself can also be leveraged in the LAN environment. Software-defined LAN (SD-LAN) can provide flexibility and management of your fiber deep network and can be configured as either a Passive Optical LAN or an Ethernet Network. 

While we can’t say for certain what future requirements will look like, they’ll likely pertain to cellular enhancements and multiple in-building applications including Wi-Fi, monitoring, video surveillance, building automation, and other IP services – many targeting a host of networked devices, the so-called “Internet of Everything.”

The Time is Now

It’s not merely performance, security, and reliability that are driving fiber’s resurgence. This fiber deep architecture is easier to adopt and less expensive to implement, operate, and manage than traditional copper-Ethernet LANs found in most corporate environments.

An all-fiber enterprise has gone from cost-prohibitive and technically cumbersome to technically advantageous and – when factoring in return on investment and total cost of lifecycle operations – more cost-effective. All of which means that fiber in the horizontal is not only viable; it’s inevitable. 

The opinions expressed in this piece are solely Corning's. They do not necessarily represent WESCO’s views.


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