Most networks were primarily designed to transport predictable flows of web, email and other types of routine traffic — not the immense burden created by emerging technologies and new user activities. Networks are now struggling to cope with services that have huge (and increasing) appetites for bandwidth and are also changing the shape of network traffic.
Networks installed in the days before anyone had ever used the acronym BYOD to describe a bring-your-own-device program are now expected to handle demands imposed by employees and guests who use an array of different smartphones, tablets, notebook computers and other mobile devices. A growing number of business technologies, including cloud computing, web conferencing and Big Data analytics, are also increasingly burdening networks with bandwidth-hungry services that they were never designed to handle.
The current trend toward ever-greater bandwidth demands shows no sign of slowing down. Waiting in the wings is the Internet of Things (IoT), which aims to connect a vast array of business and consumer devices — ranging from vehicles to door locks to refrigerators — to the Internet. A growing user preference for ultra-high-definition 4K video also promises to send data traffic into the stratosphere.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to existing networks comes from 802.11ac Wave 2, the latest Wi-Fi standard. Wave 1 products, which have been on the market for some time, can deliver speeds up to 1.3Gbps. Wave 2 products have a theoretical speed of 6.9Gbps and throughput of around 5Gbps. With the potential of such a significant increase in throughput, 802.11ac Wave 2 necessitates changes to access points and switches, creating the need for multigigabit copper.
To keep pace with emerging technologies and user demands, networks must be resilient and future-ready. In an era of rapid technological change, it’s not enough to just keep pace with existing traffic; enterprises must find ways to get ahead. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Ethernet cables deployed between access switches and access points (APs) are Category 5e (CAT 5e), which currently supports a maximum speed of 1Gbps. Thus, organizations cannot take full advantage of 802.11ac Wave 2 and subsequent technologies without upgrading the cabling infrastructure.
While it’s possible to achieve faster data rates by using link aggregation techniques that combine two or more Gigabit Ethernet connections into a virtual multigigabit stream, this approach requires specialized — and potentially costly — hardware and comes with a variety of implementation and maintenance challenges. Migrating from copper to fiber is another way of ensuring sufficient network throughput and performance for many years to come. But making the switch from copper to fiber is neither cheap nor easy.
While the price differential between fiber and copper cabling has narrowed in recent years, ripping out one type of network and replacing it with another is never a decision to be taken lightly. For many organizations, it isn’t cost-effective or even feasible to rip out and replace cabling that has been installed. The cost of a cable upgrade has been estimated at $300 per cable pull, meaning that a campuswide upgrade could easily run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. Organizations thinking about installing a new network infrastructure also need to consider other drawbacks, such as workplace disruption caused by construction and network downtime as the installation work proceeds.
Fortunately, enterprises have a simpler, more convenient and far less expensive way of giving existing copper-based networks fiber-class bandwidth. The NBASE-T standard, announced in October 2014 by Cisco, Aquantia, Freescale and Xilinx, boosts the speed of twisted-pair copper cabling, ranging up to 100 meters in length, well beyond the 1Gbps design limit. With NBASE-T, existing CAT 5e- and CAT 6-based networks are immediately able to handle growing bandwidth demands and accommodate traffic growth well into the future.
For more information on the NBASE-T standard, read the white paper “The Gigabit Upgrade.”