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Fri 19 Sep 2008 04:00 AM

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Cat selection

As the structured cabling industry continues to produce products with ever greater bandwidths, which category should you use on your next project? Chris Scott outlines the factors to consider.

As the structured cabling industry continues to produce products with ever greater bandwidths, which category should you use on your next project? Chris Scott outlines the factors to consider.

Future-proofing electrical installations is a tricky business. Not only do you have to convince your clients that the extra cost is justified, there's also the issue of knowing when and where to make the investment - and with what.

It's an issue that will be faced increasingly by contractors and design engineers in the Middle East as commercial premises become ever more hi-tech and workstations are fitted with larger numbers of networked devices that carry out ever more complex tasks.

Historically, local area networks were designed with a Category 3 circuit for voice transmission and a Category 5 or 5e circuit for data. While adequate for a period of time, this configuration eventually failed to cope with rapidly increasing data rates and networked devices and was soon replaced with the use of Category 5e products throughout.

Now the industry is looking to Category 6/6a cabling - and in rare cases Category 7 and Category 8 - to deliver the performance requirements of commercial premises currently and a decade or more into the future.

Estimates show that Category 6 cabling now accounts for more than 50% of the market in the UK and the UAE is not far behind. This is largely explained by the fact that a high percentage of specifications for developments in the UAE are drawn up in the UK.

In addition, the Middle East region bases its wiring regulations on those used in the UK, so there are sure to be similarities between the two markets. And, as data needs grow, an increasing number of specifiers and consultants are taking the opportunity to future-proof projects by installing higher level cabling systems.

There is no doubt that the demand for Category 6 products will continue to grow and eventually replace Category 5e versions. This is simply because end-users will demand its superior performance, which includes faster transmission speeds, less network interference and fewer errors.

It is also worth noting that domestic properties are increasingly being cabled for data, which opens up a whole new market for installers.

Structured approach

The essential difference between Category 5, 5e, 6, 6a, 7 and 8 cable standards is the ability of the cable to carry information through an increase in bandwidth and, at the same time, reduce network interference. It has more stringent specifications for crosstalk and system noise.

Category 8 is the highest standard currently being discussed, but few installations in the UK or UAE to date use either Category 7 or 8 and neither standard has yet been ratified.

Structured cabling is a network installation that is broken down into a number of standardised sub-systems offering users flexibility for reconfiguration in the future. This usually consists of Category 6, a cable standard for Gigabit Ethernet and other network protocols that are backwards compatible with Category 3, 5 and 5e systems.

It is worth noting that Category 5e can support Ethernet at 10 and 100Mbs and Gigabit Ethernet, but at this level it is working on the edge of its capabilities.

The recently ratified Category 6a is the one to select if 10 Gigabit Ethernet is required. Therefore Category 5e may suit the budget and current needs of a client, but it may struggle in the future.

This is particularly pertinent for developers and owners of rented office space, where data networks meet today's client needs but may fail to deliver the required performance in five or so years time.

Indeed, in some UK offices the installation of Category 6 is seen as an additional selling point for attracting tenants.

Cable manufacturer Siemon states that Category 6 cable is "ideal for end-users who require backwards compatible structured cabling systems that support 1000BASE-T during application upgrades, but also need the performance headroom to ensure the cabling plant can withstand the rigours of the cabling environment". The importance of flexibility

With each step up the Category ladder the data cabling gets thicker, which presents specific problems for network designers and installers. For example, Category 6 cabling is approximately 5-6mm in diameter, with data bends of up to 50mm needed to channel it around corners. Category 7 cabling is about 10mm in diameter and currently poses real issues when it comes to cable containment.

However, cable manufacturers are working hard to address these issues and make the cables smaller and more flexible. Each upgrade of cabling capacity has been accompanied, at least initially, by an increase in cable diameter. And, as the twisted copper wires contained within the cables become thicker, so the minimum bending has to become larger.

This may sound innocuous enough, but if more space is not allowed for these data bends, and the cable is fed through a standard radius bend in a cable containment system, problems are likely to arise.

Subjecting cabling systems of Category 6 or higher to standard bends can pinch or compress the copper wires, resulting in a drop in performance. This means that data may be lost in transmission or the streaming quality will be affected.

For example, for many companies video conferencing and video streaming are now part and parcel of their work: this adds an extra burden to networks that may already be struggling to cope with large numbers of other devices.

Category 6 cabling allows far larger volumes of information to be handled, ensuring that networks work competently now and - most importantly - years into the future.

But if Category 6 cabling is specified, it must be accompanied by a Category 6 compliant cable management system. Failure to do this can affect the performance of the higher grade cabling network.

Marshall-Tufflex is among those firms that have invested heavily in developing cable management systems that are appropriate for use with Category 6 cabling.

The firm is now finding that the majority of large projects it is working on are being specified with this higher performance cabling, in the UK at least. Design engineers seeking bend radii of 25mm or 50mm can consider using either its Odyssey or Sterling ranges.

Odyssey is the flagship of the firm's range, with a curved profile offering a dado trunking with flush accessories. It has three compartments, a built-in cable tray and is tamper resistant, making it suitable for use in healthcare and educational environments. It can be supplied with steel insert segregators or copper spray EMI screening.

Marshall-Tufflex's Sterling range of containment systems is manufactured in six versions, offering bend radii of 25 or 50mm, different sizes and compartment configurations, adjustable data boxes and dado/skirting solutions and, in the case of Sterling XL, extendible capacity.

Sterling Twin Plus features twin compartments that are designed specifically to carry power and Category 6 cabling in completely segregated compartments that include bend radius fittings of 50mm.

The future of Cat cabling

As the bar is raised further on network speeds and capacity, there is little doubt that Category 5e systems will become obsolete and Category 6 the norm in commercial buildings.

Indeed, some consider that installing a Category 5e cabling system now will limit the future uses of the network infrastructure.

For a large number of electrical contractors and clients this may not, currently, be of concern.

However, as technology becomes ever more sophisticated, Category 5e installations may struggle to perform and clients will be faced with the dilemma of making do with their system or replacing it with one of a higher specification - an expensive, time-consuming and disruptive exercise.

Chris Scott is product manager with cable management firm Marshall-Tufflex.

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