Optical LANs Starting to Move From Cloud Giants to Data Centers

Fiber optics is relatively common in telecoms and hyperscale environments, but vendors are looking to make inroads into enterprise data centers.

Elias Bernardino is the executive director of IS for Santa Fe (N.M.) Public Schools, a system that includes 14,000 students, 2,700 employees and 34 sites—including 32 schools—with 47 miles separating the two farthest buildings.

When Bernardino took over the position a couple of years ago, his predecessor had in place a plan to upgrade the local area network (LAN) for the school district with more copper wiring, a move in line with what the system already had in place. But Bernardino had other plans. After meeting with representatives from Tellabs, he scrapped the old plans, opting instead to deploy a new LAN based on fiber-optics technology.

Bernardino said he saw an opportunity to improve the speed and service to the school district's myriad buildings, students and staff, reduce maintenance costs, decrease the amount of cabling needed, increase flexibility and centralize the network management. And the savings derived from the change help offset whatever upfront costs there will be in deploying fiber optics in the LAN, he said.

"It is relatively cost-neutral," Bernardino told eWEEK, adding that for the school system to make an optical LAN something that could work for it in the long run, "we needed to cut down on our maintenance costs."

So far, the Santa Fe school district has done that and more. In the first year of a four-year plan, school officials put optical LAN technology into the Ramirez Thomas Elementary School, deploying devices for about 227 students, enabling eight "drops" per classroom, and saving enough money to cover an average teacher's salary. By the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, the district will have put Tellabs' optical LAN technology into six more schools.

Fiber optics removes the need for wiring closets and air conditioning units, requires less cabling than copper-based LANs, less power and fewer electronics, Bernardino said. It also reaches farther than copper—20 to 30 kilometers, compared with 100 meters for copper—enabling the school district to centralize management so that when a problem arises in a building, network technicians no longer have to drive miles out to remote buildings to fix the problem. It can be handled from a central location.

It also eliminates the need to upgrade cabling infrastructures, reducing operating expenses by ensuring that as technology evolves, the only components needing a refresh are the active endpoints.

"Not only are we saving [on] upfront [costs], but in the long run, our IT is more sustainable," he said.

Telecommunications companies (think Verizon's FiOS network) and big Web 2.0 organizations with hyperscale environments have embraced fiber optics in their network infrastructures—drawn by the advantages around cost, speed, distance, capacity and flexibility fiber offers over traditional copper cabling. But it's rarer in enterprise data centers.

However, with such trends as cloud computing, the rapid proliferation of connected mobile devices, the growing consumption of video and the burgeoning Internet of things (IoT), is increasing the demands placed on enterprise networks while tech vendors are increasing their efforts to bring optical LANs into the data center.