Are we moving from 10GbE Fiber to 10GbE Copper?

There are two major applications that require 10GbE (10 Gigabit Ethernet) speeds – Backbone network connectivity, mainly from the core switch to the distribution switches and the connectivity between distribution switches to the edge switches, as well. The second application is a virtualized data center. With server virtualization becoming more popular, increasing number of applications are being packed into powerful servers that require a higher bandwidth (10GbE) connectivity for their switches.

Majority of the 10GbE connections are (were?) fiber-based and optical fiber cables proved to be the perfect carrier for so much bandwidth. But, every 10GbE fiber connection comes with its own cost (and complexity). One needs specialized fiber ports in the network switch, fiber transceivers, fiber patch cords, fiber patch panels, etc.

There are some limitations to the installation of fiber cables (limited bend radius, etc) and they might need extra protection in the form of HDPE pipes, etc. OFC cables can’t just be crimped and plugged into the switches as each core needs to be spliced using a specialized equipment and requires specially trained manpower for the job. One also needs specialized equipment like OTDR to check fiber connectivity. The maintenance of fiber networks is similarly complicated (and somewhat expensive).

Of course, all this would not take away the credit from fiber cables for being the most reliable medium to carry high-bandwidth traffic over long distances. Have a look at the full list of advantages and limitations of optical fiber cables, if you are interested.

Enter 10GbE copper.

Copper is already the dominant carrier (medium) for 100 Mbps and 1 GbE connections (except for connections of more than 100 meters, which is its inherent limitation). 10GbE copper connections have been in existence for a few years now, but they have not been very popular. Did you know that even Cat 5E & Cat 6 cables can carry 10GbE traffic? They can, but if these cables are used, 10 GbE traffic cannot be carried even up to 100 meters. Their range is reduced greatly (which can vary based on your infrastructure).

However, Cat 6A and Cat 7 cables can carry 10GbE data over the full 100 meters. These two types of cables are highly recommended for 10GbE connectivity, not only for the higher distance supported, but also for other quality-factors.

Network switches with 10GbE copper ports have also been in existence for a few years now, but they have not been very popular (at least when compared to fiber switches). But, with applications like HPC, Data Center, Server Virtualization, etc. demanding high-bandwidth connectivity over shorter distances, 10GbE edge-connections have been increasing in popularity.

10GbE copper connections are mostly plug-and-play. Copper cables come with the familiar RJ-45 interface and they just need to be plugged into the switch ports supporting 10GbE. More importantly, copper ports and cables are backward compatible. A 10GbE connection can also work with 1GbE/100 Mbps devices without requiring any expensive hardware replacements (unlike OFC solution that requires the changing of fiber transceivers). It’s also easier to replace older copper cables with newer copper cables, where ever required.

Many servers/storage devices (for enterprises) support 10GbE copper interface ports. There are network switches that support all-10GbE copper connections, even for SMB. The biggest catch is: A copper 10GbE connectivity/solution is (can be) less expensive to install and maintain (when compared with fiber). The reliability of copper 10GbE interface has also increased over a period of time. But 10GbE copper solution consumes more power, which increases the running cost to an extent.

Considering the advantages of copper 10GbE connections, are we moving from 10GbE fiber to 10GbE copper, for most 10GbE network connections that are less than 100 meters?

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