The Glass Highway

For the Spartanburg County Library in Spartanburg, S.C., implementing fiber to the desktop represented a bold move, a journey to a place where bandwidth is abundant and network logjams are just a dusty memory. Yet the decision to go with fiber also meant taking a risk--hoping that a bleeding-edge technology was ready for a mainstream educational facility.

Selecting fiber to the desktop was a gamble, but one with a potentially big payoff, says Tom Lowrimore, the library's systems and planning coordinator. Back in 1997, when Lowrimore was designing the network infrastructure for the library's new headquarters and central branch, he faced the choice between fiber and copper--a situation in which the metal usually comes out on top. But in this case, "fiber won because we don't often get the money needed to tackle an upgrade on a buildingwide scale," he says. "We wanted something that would last at least 20 years. Fiber would let us move into the future."

FALLING BARRIERS

Fiber to the desktop has always been a great idea for performance reasons, but the technology has long been stalled by cost and technical burdens, including fragile, nonbendable cables and finicky, problem-prone connectors. But fiber to the desktop's prospects have grown much brighter recently, says Lauri Vickers, a communications industry analyst with Cahners In-Stat Group, a technology research company in Scottsdale, Ariz. "The falling price of fiber, because of improved manufacturing methods and increased competition, has been a big part of the story," she says. The other piece of the tale is a new generation of simpler connectors and more flexible, easier-to-route cables. These elements, combined with fiber's ability to accommodate high bandwidths (from 100Mbps Fast Ethernet to Gigabit Ethernet), have made fiber to the desktop an attractive proposition for a growing number of organizations.

Fiber is more than just fast. It's also very secure. Unlike standard copper wiring, fiber doesn't radiate signals that can present a possible security hole. "With fiber optics, you literally have to break into the cable in order to snoop," says Vickers. For the same reason, fiber networks are highly resistant to outside interference from radio signals, heavy machinery and other electrical generation sources. "If a power plant opens next door, it's not going to interfere with your fiber network," says Vickers.

Fiber customers also enjoy the technology's robust signal strength. While copper cable runs top out at only a few hundred feet, fiber links can span up to three kilometers before requiring amplification. In big networks, that means less hardware and fewer wiring closets.

Fiber technology also reduces latency--the time between initiating a request for data and the beginning of the actual data transfer. "Every time you take a signal, clean it up and retransmit it, you're going to introduce more delay," says Vickers. Latency is a critical issue for networks running Internet protocol (IP) telephony and multimedia technologies, where the phenomenon can cause delayed and jumbled sounds and images.

SPEED AND RELIABILITY

At the Spartanburg library headquarters, fiber to the desktop has meant having the ability to send multimedia content, as well as high-speed data traffic, to 110 desktops. Reliability has been another major benefit, says Lowrimore. "Whenever there's a storm, I don't have things killed by lightning, a big problem in this neck of the woods." Lowrimore says he hasn't had to replace any hardware because of mechanical or electrical failure during the network's three years of operation. "That's certainly been a big cost benefit," he notes.

Other cost fears may be overblown as well. Lowrimore says the fiber media actually priced out about 30 percent lower than bids he received for UTP (unshielded twisted-pair) Category 5 copper cabling. Network adapter cards, hubs and related fiber electronics hardware totaled slightly higher than the estimated cost of their copper counterparts. In all, the overall implementation (put in place by Atlanta-based systems integrator Fiberworks) totaled slightly less than the estimated cost of a high-bandwidth copper environment, says Lowrimore. "We were pleasantly surprised given everything we had heard about [the cost of] optical fiber."

FIBER IN PARADISE

And even when it does cost more initially, fiber can save money in other ways. Like Spartanburg, the Hilton Hawaiian Village resort on Waikiki saw fiber as a way to avoid costly network upgrades in the near future. "We wanted to come up with a system that would last us anywhere from eight to 12 years," says Patrick McHugh, Hilton Hawaiian Village's MIS director. "You wouldn't want to change your building's plumbing every three to four years, so why wouldn't you want to build your networking infrastructure to last?"

After checking the prices for various alternatives, McHugh discovered that a fiber network would cost slightly more than a UTP Category 5 copper system: approximately $120,000 versus $112,000. But fiber offered an important cost-savings benefit. The technology allowed McHugh to slash the number of wiring closets used by his network from 13 to three active and two passive (only three have electricity), saving precious space in a corner of the world where cheap real estate is as rare as snow. "We use a central zoning technique," says McHugh. The network's main switches are located in the computer room. Cables run to patch panels in each department. "If you have to put new runs in, you only have to run them to the patch panel," he says.

Fiber offered another bonus as well. Because of space restraints, the previous network's hubs were located in mechanical rooms and subject to heat and other adverse environmental conditionals. "If we had gone with Fast Ethernet copper, we would have been forced to move the switches into actual work spaces," says McHugh. The organization would have then faced the extra trouble and expense of disguising and soundproofing the hardware, at a cost of several thousand dollars for a series of special enclosures.

McHugh says the network's rollout has been trouble-free. The only glitch was a missing DOS driver, which was needed to run some legacy applications. "3M stepped in and wrote us a custom driver, so that problem was quickly solved," says McHugh. "I have no regrets about going with fiber. I would do it again in a heartbeat."

And initial success invites bigger plans for the future. The resort expects to bring an additional 133 desktops into the fiber network by the end of this year. The company is also looking into the possibility of using fiber to provide multimedia services and high-speed Internet connectivity to its guests. "But that's farther down the road," says McHugh.

A FIBER FUTURE

Although fiber is rapidly joining the networking mainstream, Cahners In-Stat Group analyst Vickers doesn't foresee a rapid abandonment of copper technology. "Since most organizations have huge investments in copper cable, there won't be any sudden move to rip out existing wiring and replace it with fiber to the desktop," she says. Vickers believes that most organizations will wait until their existing networks' capacity is pushed to the breaking point before switching to fiber. "For now, most desktop fiber purchases will be for new installations rather than upgrades," says Vickers.

Organizations that do adopt fiber to the desktop over the next few years will have to pay close attention to the people they hire to install and maintain their networks. "Although fiber is more reliable than copper, it can be tougher to fix," says Bill Lennon, a Ph.D. engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. "A lot of technicians are just moving into fiber, so it can be tricky finding people who fully understand how to maintain and repair fiber networks."

But Vickers believes that despite a few growing pains, fiber to the desktop is destined to become the predominant local area network media. "It's the future of networking," she says. "The outlook is clear."

Are you an efficiency expert? Tell us about it at et@cio.com. John Edwards is a freelance technology writer based in Gilbert, Ariz. He can be reached at jedwards@john-edwards.com.

NEW PRODUCTS

HELP YOURSELF

Web-based support is becoming increasingly critical, both as a way to reduce corporate support costs and as a convenience feature customers have come to expect. RightNow Technologies Inc. hopes to ease the online support burden with RightNow Web 3.2, the most recent upgrade to its customer service suite. RightNow Web's tools provide support via self-help answers to common questions, e-mail, live chat, issue tracking and service contract management. Features include a SmartAssistant that can help users pinpoint relevant answers as well as a natural language search engine. Pricing starts at $34,995 for a two-year license. For more information, visit www.rightnowtech.com or call 406 522-4200.

STORE IT AWAY

Archival tape systems provide inexpensive storage, but at the price of retrieval times that are sometimes too slow for critical data. To get around that, Grau Data Storage Inc.'s new Infinistore Virtual Disk combines the multiterabyte capacity and relatively low cost of tape storage with the speed of hard-disk RAID in a single unit. Just one Infinistore cabinet can house up to 400GB of RAID-5 disk storage and as much as 20 terabytes of Sony Corp.'s AIT-2 or Exabyte Corp.'s Mammoth-2 tape storage. The entire unit appears as a single logical drive that can be partitioned by an administrator for different uses. Pricing for a 2.5-terabyte system starts at $100,000. For more information, visit www.graudata.com or call 303 665-3018.

UNWIRED

Using a WAP-enabled cell phone to access stock quotes or sports scores is fine, but such tasks might not be the most useful application for your fancy communicator. InfoWave Software Inc. is trying to up the power of WAP through a trio of tools that provide remote access to corporate resources--even those behind a firewall. FirstHand allows WAP devices to connect to Microsoft Outlook e-mail, calendar, contact and task features. InfoWave for Exchange combines FirstHand with a client for PocketPC or notebook access. InfoWave for the Net completes the set by adding corporate intranet and extranet access. Pricing is per-seat and starts at $60 for FirstHand to $350 for the suite. For more information, visit www.infowave.com or call 604 473-3600.

WORK WHERE YOU WANT

Laptops don't always work best on your lap. Intrigo Inc. has introduced a line of portable workstations for mobile computers. The Lapstations collapse into briefcase-size packages that unfold to form a stable surface with built-in wrist rests for portable computers. Higher-end units include mesh side pockets and gel-filled wrist supports. Lapstations weigh approximately six pounds. Pricing starts at $99. For more information, visit www.intrigo.com or call 805 494-1742.

PORTAL POWER

Sequoia Software Corp. has recently released the third generation of its XML-based enterprise portal product. According to the company, XML Portal Server 3.0 lets corporations integrate disparate systems and applications, providing access to them all through a browser-based interface. XPS 3.0 offers a variety of features, including a rules engine for automating business processes, support for wireless devices and an integrated application server that supports load balancing across distributed servers. Product pricing starts at $500 per user for a minimum of 100 users. For more information, visit www.sequoiasoftware.com or call 410 715-0206.

IT LIVES TO SERVE

Oki Electric Industry Co. Ltd. has unveiled the OkiLAN 6100e+ Ethernet print server. The server offers 10/100Mbps Ethernet support as well as compliance with the Internet Print Protocol, which lets users submit print jobs to network printers by e-mailing them to an IP address instead of an e-mail address. With the addition of an optional IR Infrared Transceiver, the print server can also print directly from IR-enabled cell phones, personal digital assistants and notebook computers. The 6100e+ has a list price of $335.99. For more information, visit www.okidata.com or call 800 OKI-DATA.

E-MAIL GUARDIAN

It can be hard to keep track of your own e-mail, so how can you keep track of everyone else's? Telemate.net Software Inc. says it has the answer with NetSpective for E-Mail. The software lets administrators monitor e-mail usage and create reports on e-mail activity by division, department or user. They can use the reports to identify possible security problems, resource allocation issues and more. The product works with both Microsoft Corp. Exchange and Sendmail servers. Pricing starts at $3,495. For more information, visit www.telemate.net or call 770 936-3700.

PREDICTIONS E-COMMERCE B2B BUS IS LEAVING NOW...

Business-to-business transactions will account for more than $6.3 trillion in online spending in the United States, according to a recent report by San Francisco analysis firm Jupiter Communications Inc. If that sounds like a lot of money, it is: an increase of $6 trillion over 2000's $336 billion total.

The forum where these online transactions take place will also transform dramatically in the next five years, the report says. Where 92 percent of today's B2B transactions take place in a direct, one-to-one relationship between buyer and seller, by 2005, markets will handle 35 percent of those transactions. These markets will consist of both Net markets, made up of many buyers and sellers, and coalition markets, made up of consortiums of buyers and sellers. According to the report, these markets could "completely disrupt current channels."

The report concludes that these big numbers should prompt companies to develop their B2B infrastructure. If they don't, they'll risk missing out on efficiency, pricing and sales opportunities that will appear in the near future. If you don't want to be left behind, Jupiter recommends that companies investigate a mix of direct and market models and suggests that companies with a stronger market position should concentrate on direct sales while smaller, weaker companies look for their chances in the Net and coalition markets.

UNDER DEVELOPMENT SECURITY

Intelligent Agents Fight Computer IntrudersThink about your firewall. There it sits, a virtual deadbolt defending your company's systems against all that's evil on the Internet. But what happens when someone picks the lock--or comes busting through the door? Once inside, hackers often find little resistance behind the scenes. And worse, what if your enemy is inside the company walls?

Enter the Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories. Back in 1997, the Albuquerque, N.M., research center began investigating the possible uses of "swarm behavior," where collectives of small, simple systems perform dauntingly large tasks. (Mr. Rogers was right--it's nice to cooperate.) In short order, the research uncovered a potentially powerful use--computer and network security. Instead of a monolithic barrier (the firewall) charged with monitoring traffic to and from every system in a network, Sandia's researchers proposed that collections of "cyberagents" running on each individual system could do a more effective job.

In the Sandia model, programmers write cyberagent technology into the code of networked applications (they've already built an agent-enabled Web server). These applications then know how to protect themselves, instead of relying on third party add-on products to do the job. The current agent is also a jack-of-all-trades that understands a variety of network-related security tasks--checking XML, e-mail, FTP and more--making it appropriate for many kinds of applications. Even better, the agents are intelligent enough to work together. If one detects an attack, it can quickly inform other connected agents, giving them a chance to prepare for--or to warn human administrators about--the impending danger.

The result is a more resilient system that's less likely to fail because of a single weak link. And according to principal investigator Steven Y. Goldsmith, the agents are general-purpose enough that their designers could program them to do far more than simply act as security guards. For instance, the agents could integrate into ever more powerful search engines or highly secure shopping bots.

Sandia is investigating technology transfer opportunities with a private company to begin deploying products based on the technology, but don't look for any results soon. Goldsmith estimates that initial products won't go into alpha testing until next June. He also notes that the first products will focus on securing intranets from internal attackers, rather than making the entire Internet a safer place to live and work. Intranets, he says, have more clearly defined sets of security rules, making them more controllable test beds for the earliest products. As a result, full-fledged Internet protection products won't arrive for at least two or three years.

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