Hey, fiber's pretty cheap!

Even leveraging the Gigabit capabilities of the Cat 5e or Cat 6, you just can't beat the sheer data-carrying ability of fiber.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

As we continue to engineer our tech refresh at my high school, we're looking at a variety of ways to improve our infrastructure as well.  In particular, because we are installing thin clients in three different labs, fiber backbones come to mind.  Most of our cabling is Cat 5e already with some individual drops still running old Cat 5.   However, even leveraging the Gigabit capabilities of the Cat 5e, you just can't beat the sheer data-carrying ability of fiber.  It also allows data to be carried over much greater distances than can be achieved with copper.

Of course, fiber is incredibly expensive, right?   Well, it still ain't copper cheap, but I was able to find a 500 foot patch cable of multimode fiber for under $300.  Not exactly loose pocket change, but considering that Cat 5e can't even run 500', this is a real bargain.  $100 buys you a fiber to ethernet converter box or, depending upon your network hardware, a few hundred buys you transceivers for each end of the patch cable.  While this adds up quickly, strategic use of fiber can be both cost-effective and efficient.

In our case, our servers had been tucked into a book closet behind 100 copies of The Grapes of Wrath.  The advantage here was the closeness to our T1 drops and router, which were also located in this closet.  Similarly, years ago, drops to most of the classrooms in the school were wired out of this closet.  The addition of 5 servers, however, just wasn't going to fly with the English department (or the network admin, namely me).  So it was time to relocate without rewiring the whole school.  I just happened to have a larger, climate-controlled office become available, so I took it and moved the servers about 300 feet, testing the bounds of the Ethernet standard.

Overall, this has worked well, but we have seen a minor performance hit.  A minor hit I can live with, but we haven't rolled out the thin clients yet.  Uh-oh.  Fiber, though, offers so much bandwidth over so much distance that remote server locations becomes irrelevant.  I'm not talking about running fiber to individual desktops.  This is a public school after all.  Yet by connecting the server room (aka, my office) to the wiring closet (aka, the English book closet) via fiber, with similar connections to the new labs, I'm able to keep the working portions of my network infrastructure in place and easily address issues with our physical plant and required bandwidth for the thin clients.

The final cost for these runs, including converters, transceivers, and the patch cables?  About $2500.  Now I've had yearly operating budgets as low as $4000, so this is a hefty investment by our standards.  However, the returns in terms of bandwidth, usability, and, perhaps more importantly, space and convenience, are well worth the price of admission.  Especially since the price is a heck of a lot lower than ever before. 

Editorial standards