There's Gold in That Thar' Copper

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Fiber optic cabling is more efficient, flexible and has more bandwidth than copper cabling. It's also more expensive, which is why, in light of the dismal prospects for IT budgets going forward, you'll probably have to rely on what's left of your copper infrastructure for a while longer.


But that doesn't mean you're stuck with last year's networking capability. There's a new push to put high-bandwidth capabilities onto copper through the 10Gbase-T standard.


The ideal fit, of course, is to match 10Gbase-T with 10 GbE, providing a flexible fabric that can handle everything from storage and application data to e-mail and voice communications, even in mixed copper/fiber environments.


Solarflare Communications took a big step in that direction last month at VMworld when it demoed a line-rate vNIC controller and 10Gbase-T physical layer (PHY) technology connecting an ESX server environment with iSCSI storage over 100-meter lengths. The demo featured systems that are already shipping as part of NIC and switching systems from SMC. In pitching the system, Solarflare surveyed VMworld attendees and found that 87 percent of respondents rely on either Cat 5, 5e or 6 cable as their primary physical medium.


Another 10Gbase-T combination will consist of technologies from ADC, Fluke Networks, Intel and Extreme Networks. The quartet recently mounted a demonstration at the BICSI fall conference in Las Vegas showing 10Gbase-T traffic running more than 100 meters on Cat 6a cable. The link had a four-connector channel in a six-around-one configuration to show that alien crosstalk was not an issue on copper.


The Cat 6a cable used in the demonstration is itself a recent development. Belkin International introduced it only this week specifically for data centers to consolidate servers and other resources around 10Gbase-T infrastructures. The company says the wire is TIA/EIA compliant in both channel and permanent link configurations and meets all of the crosstalk, return and insertion loss, propagation delay and delay skew for 10 Gbps transmission up to 100 meters. It's also backward compatible with Cat 5e and Cat 6 links.


Even without the tough economic times, it would still be a tall order to swap out large amounts of copper for fiber. The good news is that with advanced networking finding a comfortable home on copper, you don't have to.