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Navigating the Transition from Copper to Optical Fiber: Considerations, Challenges, and Solutions

Transitioning from copper links to optical fiber can be tricky and expensive. In addition to the obvious expense of new switches, routers and fiber infrastructure, there can be hidden issues that may not show up in the initial planning and budgeting process. These surprises can delay deployment, impact network availability and dishearten budget managers. Let’s take a look at the fiber optic market and some transition issues that should be included early in the planning process.

The Optical Network Market is Growing 

5G high speed internet, digital transformation and increased security are driving robust growth in fiber optic networks. According to a Utilities One survey, over 50% of businesses worldwide are expected to adopt optical networking in the coming years. Another driver is transmission over distance. At distances over 100 meters, fiber loss is 3% while copper loss at that distance is 94%. As a result, many businesses are looking to transition to fiber in the long haul while maintaining legacy copper for shorter links.  

Modor Intelligence forecasts the optical cable market to grow at a CAGR of 8.46% from 2024 to 2029. The current global fiber optic market value is USD12.83 billion and is expected to grow to USD19.26 billion by 2029. The industries that will be major drivers of that growth include telecommunications, power utilities, defense, industrial and medical among others.  

Copper cable is still widely used in enterprise networks as well as a legacy infrastructure in many telecom companies. However, there are many advantages to utilizing optical cable for future growth. Fiber cables are flexible, compact and lightweight making them suitable for deployment underground and underwater, as well as aerial installations along power poles. Because optical cables are immune to electrical interference, they can be deployed along the same path as existing power cables, simplifying right-of-way issues on long haul routes.  

No one can argue that the future belongs to fiber optics. However, there are still billions of dollars of legacy copper in networks around the world. Many businesses will utilize copper for runs of 50 meters or less and deploy fiber for longer distances. Another option might be an enterprise opting to install fiber for new links while maintaining existing copper links.

Consider Network Monitoring Tools Early In the Planning Cycle

Businesses that are considering a fiber transition project have many good reasons for making the change. The most future-proof plan is, of course, taking out all the copper and replacing it with optical links. This option, however, can be very expensive and disruptive to the organization. Regardless of current disruption and budget, total replacement may be the preferred option. The decision depends on factors such as current and future bandwidth needs, ability to cover the expense and willingness to manage potential disruption. Another option is to replace long-haul copper with fiber links and keep the short distance copper links. The hybrid approach can be much more budget friendly but a little tricky in implementation.

One important consideration with either approach is to look beyond the switches and routers in the planning process. There are many important tools connected to links that keep the network running smoothly. These tools and their connectivity to links must be considered early on in the project plan. Large enterprise networks may have as many as seven or more tools per link connected for traffic monitoring, performance, security and future planning. Transitioning every tool on every link is a critical consideration when planning for an infrastructure change.

Using Copper Tools on Optical Links

When adding fiber links to a copper network or transitioning large portions of the network from copper to fiber, the monitoring and security tool connectivity should be reviewed. TAPs and Packet Brokers that are used to connect tools may be able to help ease the shock of scrapping all the existing tools that use copper connections. The SmartNA TAP and SmartNA-XL Hybrid TAP/Packet Broker offer solutions to keep existing copper tools in service while transitioning links to optical fiber.

Both the SmartNA and SmartNA-XL are modular, customizable systems with a variety of TAP modules that can connect tools via a variety of media. The XL version, for example, has twenty 1/10/40Gbps SFP/SFP+ ports that can be used for network input and tool connection. The powerful, non-blocking backplane allows traffic to flow at 10Mbps to 40Mbps. Using the available modules, copper tools can be connected to the chassis managing traffic on fiber links through a different module connected to the same chassis. No need to scrap valuable copper tools. 

Concerns about bandwidth and processing capability of copper connected tools on fiber links can be alleviated using intelligent features on the devices. Both the SmartNA and SmartNA-XL support port mapping, aggregation, filtering and packet manipulation. Therefore, the specific data that is required by a tool can be isolated from data that is not required and then mapped to the tool. When filtering out unnecessary data, the bandwidth and processing capabilities of the copper tool will now suit the needs of the newly installed fiber link.

Many fiber links are underutilized.  When this is the case, data from multiple links can be aggregated by the TAP and directed to a single management tool. This is a budget friendly feature allowing a single tool to manage many links. 

As organizations move to optical networking, either fully or as hybrid, intelligent TAPs such as the SmartNA play an important role in migrating tools to the new or updated network infrastructure. The network experts at Network Critical are available to offer a free visibility audit to help in planning optical transition. An audit session may prove very helpful integrating network management with network design in the early planning stages. To set up an audit or to get more detailed information on intelligent TAP features, click the button below.






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