Plenty of wires in a wireless world

When wireless networking emerged as a reality, it heralded a new era in which cabled networks were likely to go the way of the Dodo and the paper-driven office

July 14, 2010

When wireless networking emerged as a reality, it heralded a new era in which cabled networks were likely to go the way of the Dodo and the paper-driven office. Sticklers for detail will note one important inaccuracy: the Dodo may be gone, but the paperless office never arrived. Similarly, copper-cabled networks have retained prominence despite the undeniable benefits of connecting computers over the airwaves, says Dewald Booysen, CTO of Dimension Data’s Advanced Infrastructure division.

And, like many of the issues in the Internet age, it all comes down to a question of bandwidth.

“The simple fact is that as time progresses, we tend to send bigger and bigger files between computers. A permanent, in-building, cabled network cannot be matched for performance by even the fastest, most modern wireless solution,” says Booysen.

While putting in a wired network may require more careful planning and a greater upfront cost, it lasts longer, is more secure and delivers the all-important high-speed connectivity. The cables themselves, rather unimaginatively called ‘Cat 6A UTP’, are a low-cost commodity. But the active equipment – the switches and routers – are where the magic resides. Until relatively recently ‘top speed’ on the cables, which has been unchanged since the early 1990s, was a pedestrian 100MB/s. Today, 1GB/s to the desktop is commonplace, while 10GB/s is easily achieved. “That’s stock standard cabling and the same RJ45 connector in use for nearly two decades,” Booysen asserts.

Wireless, on the other hand, delivers up to 180MB/s if the newest (and therefore most expensive) equipment is used. “Then there is contention – when several users are connecting to a single access point, that throughput will drop substantially,” Booysen notes.

By no means is he writing off wireless as a failure, though. “There is no question about the value, performance and even security of appropriately configured wireless network access points. They provide for rapid, easy access and unmatched convenience. But wireless, in business and even in residential settings where network speed is a priority, serves as a complementary technology that cannot match the performance of copper.”

What about fibre optic cabling, though? “Fibre is emerging and becoming the norm in data centres, but surprisingly perhaps, it is not as appealing as copper in office environments,” says Booysen.

The secret lies in the backwards compatibility implied by the use of the same connectors and cables in new equipment as in old. “If the notebook, PC or server has an older network card which can only handle 100MB/s, it will work just fine with newer equipment which is capable of even a 10GB/s connection,” Booysen confirms. Furthermore, he adds, the active equipment for copper is considerably less costly than that for fibre optic networks, too.

Booysen says that for its part, Dimension Data’s Advanced Infrastructure division continues to move volumes of ‘wired’ networking equipment in line with reasonable projections for demand, year on year. “We’re delivering about R350-million in cabled infrastructure per annum. Alongside that is a healthy market for wireless, but by no means has this market come anywhere near replacing demand for wired networks,” he concludes.