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High-Tech Times Article 034

Flying with Fiber-Optic Networks

Welcome back to the High-Tech Times. One of the best things about being a computer systems integrator is the chance to try out “new and improved” technologies. I have been working closely with 3M’s new Volition network cabling system over the past few months, and asked my 3M rep if we could also wire my office. All I can say is, Wow!

My 22 office computers have been effectively networked using a couple of 10/100Base-T hubs and Category 5 copper cable, with data transferred between the machines at 100 Mbit/second. This has always seemed fast enough for me, except when I’m transferring huge multi-gigabyte video files, or when there are a bunch of people in the office, all cranking out AutoCAD and 3D Studio MAX projects. Well, I was wrong - my network wasn’t fast enough at all.
For performance comparison purposes, we decided to leave half of my office network connected with the old hub and NICs, while the other half was converted to fiber-optic. And the half that were converted were split into six machines using all fiber (including NICs), and five with the old NICs, but connected to the Volition VOL-4000 fiber switch using converters.
Let me start by describing a few of the Volition switch’s rather impressive technical specifications. Instead of a maximum of 100 Mbit/second found in most office networks, the VOL-4000 offers a 4.8 Gigabit/second fiber-optic backplane! That means that for my computers hooked through their fiber switch with Volition fiber network interface cards (NICs), I can transfer huge video files in just seconds! And with the fiber switch, everyone on the fiber network gets the full bandwidth all the time.
We began by replacing my infamous SoHoWare hub with a Volition VOL-2008 eight-port 10/100 hub, and connecting half of the fiber NICs to the VOL-4000 switch and the rest to the hub. Setting up this network topology took less than 30 minutes, including building all of the custom-length fiber-optic cables. These cables are not only smaller and more flexible than standard Cat. 5 cables, but they’re also easier and quicker to build; this alone is a whole new reason to consider fiber-optic networks.
I then began testing with a 4.83 GB video file that has been clogging up my network. I was able to transfer it between two computers hooked end-to-end with fiber-optics through the VOL-4000 in 8.3 seconds. I then transferred the same file between two computers on the old 10/100 copper network; result: 1,181.6 seconds. I was a bit puzzled by this, as I had expected the time to be around 386 seconds, but when the 3M rep analyzed my old network, he found that packet collisions through the copper hub and cables were lowering my data-transfer efficiency to around 32.7 percent!
Having studied network collision theory in my MCSE courses, I was aware of this factor in network design, but this was the first time that I could really feel it in action. It’s kinda’ hard to miss a data transfer time that’s over 140 times longer...! Using the Volition 10/100 hub instead of the switch resulted in the file transferring in 67.2 seconds, showing that the transfer rate was very close to the theoretical 100 Mbit/second maximum. There were almost no signs of packet  collisions, either.
I have been demonstrating my new network primarily to teachers and school planners so far. This summer is when the Hawaii Department of Education (DOE) was planning to convert most schools over to 3Com network equipment with new Category 5 cable. However, one small glitch arose: 3Com decided to get out of this level of networking as of early May. That has left the DOE schools high and dry, even though 3Com has since sold their networking capabilities to at least one other vendor; I’d hate to be the person responsible for installing what might be considered “manufacturer-discontinued” products.
The nice thing about the 3M Volition system is that instead of having up to a dozen wiring closets scattered all over the school (each with air-conditioning) to keep the length of their Category 5 copper cables below the 90-meter (about 292 feet) to ensure the network will operate, they can have one single Volition fiber switch in their central office. This is because the maximum length for fiber-optic cable is 2000 meters, or well over 6,500 feet. Another big advantage is that instead of requiring metal conduits to prevent circuit noise for copper network cables, fiber cables have no such need, as they are non-metallic and don’t act as antennas. Fiber-optic cables also don’t have to have special fire-retardant coatings when they are run through an office plenum.
What is the downside to the 3M Volition system? Well, price is certainly a factor. The small or home office might be hard-pressed to cost-justify a per-seat cost of around $200 for 10/100Base-T when you can buy an inexpensive 10/100 hub and Ethernet NICs and copper cables for around half of that. And if you want the full 4.8-Gbit bandwidth of the VOL-4000 switch, you’d better be considering a fairly large number of network seats. 
But for companies that need constant high-bandwidth, no packet collisions, and all of the advantages of fiber-optics, I strongly suggest that you give 3M Hawaii a call at 422-3252 and talk with them about your specific needs. Otherwise, you may never know just how much faster your network can be running.
See you next month.