Power users drive fiber deployment

BY DAN SILVER

For many years, people waited for the "killer app" that was going to make fiber in the horizontal an absolute necessity. What has emerged is more along the lines of power users-those who need lots of bandwidth to support not just one application but a multitude of applications. All are demanding bandwidth and speed.

Just as there is no one killer application, there also isn't a typical power user. Yes, there are software developers, stock traders, and military bases, but there are also elementary school students and convention attendees. What makes each of them power users is that fiber allows them to leverage opportunities that were not possible using conventional copper cabling.

The term "early adopters" takes on a whole new meaning when you realize that elementary school students are prime examples of the new kind of power user. According to Peggy Guy, coordinator of technology service for the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, students and educators "need bandwidth and lots of it, especially to handle the new multimedia educational applications coming down the pike." Streaming video and high-speed Internet access are only the most recent additions to classroom teaching techniques that schools are using, with new applications sure to follow.

The Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools is the 49th largest urban school district in the nation. The decision to deploy fiber was driven both by the need for bandwidth and to solve the interference and link-length problems that plagued the previous copper-based LAN.

"Copper cabling isn't ideal in elementary and secondary school environments," Guy says. "First, schools tend to have a sprawling layout. The 100-m maximum link length supported by copper means that multiple repeaters are usually needed to cover the required distances. Another problem is that the schools are loaded with older fluorescent lighting that often interferes with copper cabling. But the most critical barrier is the limited bandwidth headroom provided by copper cabling. While Category 5 cabling can handle 100 Mbits/sec without difficulty, a lot of uncertainty still exists about its ability to handle future generations. Even if these issues are resolved, higher speeds will probably reduce the maximum link lengths to the point that the copper will probably need to be replaced anyway within a few years."

At first, Guy says, they did not believe the Nashville district could afford fiber. However, they found that lower rates for fiber-optic cabling and network electronics, coupled with funding from the education rate (E-rate) program, made the fiber network about the same cost as overhauling the district's copper network. To help keep costs down, the network uses media converters to bridge the gap between traditional routers and switches and the new fiber cabling. Small-form-factor connectors were installed since they are much easier and faster to install than ST connectors.

Currently, the network backbone is running 100-Mbit/sec Fast Ethernet, but it could easily be upgraded to higher speeds by simply switching out the electronics. The majority of the classrooms are equipped with mini hubs that provide up to eight 10-Mbit/sec or 100-Mbit/sec ports. These switches, in turn, feed hubs in most classrooms that serve up to 300 computers.

"Getting our schools connected with fiber has had an immediate and positive impact in our classrooms," Guy explains. "Once the network was installed, educators and students began discovering powerful new applications that put it to the test. Multimedia instructional applications are a natural for schools because they multiply the effectiveness of scarce instructional resources by allowing teachers with special skills to be in more than one place at a time. We expect to see a wave of new applications that will allow us to substantially increase the instructional resources that we can put at the disposal of our students at a very reasonable cost."

High rollers at Bally's Las Vegas are enjoying a different kind of power-at their convention sites and meeting rooms. Bally's is the first hotel on the strip to provide fiber-optic cabling direct to floor pockets in convention and meeting rooms. That makes it possible for the hotel to construct impromptu networks in minutes that can handle voice, video, audio, and other media at any desired speed throughout its extensive meeting areas.

Hotel guests today have increasingly sophisticated requests, according to Michael Bendetti, president of Spaghetti Western, the Las Vegas company that designed the new fiber network and the facility's multimillion-dollar upgrade. "They may need to deliver streaming video to desktop machines located all over the building, provide high-speed Internet connections direct to the desktop, or simulcast a PowerPoint and video presentation in the Grand Ballroom to an overflow crowd gathered on another floor." Complicating the issue is that each meeting has a different floor plan and networking requirements.

Bally's Las Vegas is one of the foremost convention centers in the country with more than 165,00 square feet of meeting space. The hotel's meeting facilities are divided between the casino level, south tower, and 26th floor.

Bendetti was surprised to find that installing fiber turned out to be no more expensive than upgrading the hotel's copper network. "The price of the cable and connectors turned out to be only about 20% higher than copper. But when I figured in the savings from eliminating the repeaters, it was a wash. I realized that fiber would provide the assurance of being able to handle all the data, audio, and video needs of the hotel for the foreseeable future."

To optimize flexibility, Bally's entire network is configured as a LAN. Through patch panels, the network can be reconfigured in minutes to create impromptu LANs that can handle any client's needs. For example, the grand ballroom has 40 access panels with recessed floor pockets all around the room. Each pocket contains audio, video, data, and phone connections. Currently, the network uses 10-Mbit/sec and 100-Mbit/sec switches, but the speed of the network can easily be upgraded to 10 Gbits/sec simply by changing out the switches.

The first phase of the project, which included the Grand Ballroom and Events Center is up, running, and fully meeting expectations. With phase two underway, Bally's networking facilities have a clear advantage over its competitors in the highly competitive Las Vegas convention business.

With users in every walk of life demanding more from their networks, optical fiber is becoming the medium of choice to power users of every age. By giving users bandwidth, flexibility, and headroom, network managers can leverage their investment in their infrastructure into a competitive advantage.

Dan Silver is chair of the Fiber Optics LAN Section and marketing manager for 3M/Volition (Austin, TX). FOLS member companies include 3M/Volition, Allied Telesyn International, AMP Netconnect, Aura Networks, Belden Wire & Cable, Berk-Tek, CommScope, Corning, Corning Cabling Systems, Leviton Voice and Data Div., Lucent Technologies, Micro Linear, Ortronics, Panduit, the Siemon Co., Sumitomo Electric Lightwave, Sun Conversion Technologies, and Transition Networks. Visit the FOLS Website at www.fols.org.

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