Most people will be aware that there are two main options for cable material available today: copper and fibre. Within copper, cabling systems complying with Category 5e and Category 6 will probably be the most familiar, as these are the predominant choices for typical enterprise applications. In recent years, copper’s capabilities have been extended with the introduction of a standard that enables it to support up to 10 GB/s Ethernet, commonly known as 10G BASE-T. Copper cabling is perfect for most existing desktop applications, but the new standard really pushes its limits: it is hard to argue the case for copper much beyond 10 GB/s, certainly not at the lengths required in most cabling systems. Not only do problems, such as managing EMI, become exacerbated at higher data rates, far greater installation skill is required and the faster the data rate, the more power is required, pushing up operational costs.
Fibre optic cabling, on the other hand, requires a lot less power than copper. Estimates vary, but all are within the range of 10-15 watts per copper port, compared to just 1-5 watts per fibre port. With most companies keeping a close eye on power consumption, or focusing on their green credentials, this is an important consideration. In terms of production, fibre is arguably more environmentally responsible overall: it does not need to be mined and, although it cannot be recycled, it has a much longer lifespan.
Fibre also provides higher density, weighs less and uses less space; plus, unlike copper, it is virtually impossible to ‘hack’ and is resistant to EMI. Furthermore, since it is a non-conductive material, fibre can also be used in environments where electrical isolation is needed, for instance between buildings. Fibre also does not pose a threat in potentially hazardous environments, for example, in chemical plants where a spark could trigger an explosion.
While it is hard to predict data traffic speeds of the future, fibre’s limit is a long way from being reached. Certainly, for any organisation looking at making a long-term cabling investment that will support rising data traffic volumes and transfer speeds for years to come, it makes economical sense to consider the business case for fibre, whether for storage area networks, data centres or even general desktop connections, and particularly for any mission-critical applications.