Friday, September 10, 2010

Category 6 revisited

Once again, my own stubborn pride has kept me in the middle of a debate concerning Category 6 UTP cabling. My earlier blog posts, Why I passed on Category 6 and Category 6 and PoE, as well as some public comments have generated criticism from a number of sources. I’m happy to say that all debate has been civil and I’ve found some new perspective on the question.

I’m happy to stand behind my past comments. For the University of Florida, Category 5e cabling remains our minimum standard for new telecommunications cabling installed on campus. Category 5e supports the data rates we need at a lower cost than Category 6. Category 6 provides no tangible benefit for the increased cost.

During our debates on the topic, the participants fell into two camps that were oddly split along departmental lines. Those that worked in building construction and held RCDD’s firmly believed that Category 6 needed to be the new minimum standard in our Telecommunications Standard. Those that worked in supporting building networks stood by the assertion that the extra money for Category 6 purchased nothing that we, as end consumers, needed.

I won’t go over the arguments either for or against either position. I’ve detailed them rather well in my past blog posts. Instead, I would like to focus on the resolution of the debate.

In the end, the UF Telecommunications Standard has Category 5e listed as the preferred minimum level of UTP cabling that will be accepted for new building construction. The wording is appropriate for a standard born of compromise but doesn’t really do a fine job of presenting a coherent vision for the University of Florida network.

As a final attempt to sway opinion, our Inside and Outside Plant Coordinators requested the opinion of Mel Lesperance, the BICSI southeast regional coordinator. I don’t know Mel very well personally but I have known him by reputation for many years. The question was resolved before Mel fielded his opinion but as a parting shot, his opinion was forwarded on to the committee.

Mel wrote an elegant piece supporting the requirement for Category 6 in new building construction. Nothing in the piece changed my opinion but I was moved by the professional demeanor of the paper Mel wrote. He presented all of the arguments I’ve previously mentioned in a simple and direct manner. Given that he was stepping into a known area of contention, he did so with distinction.

But, he didn’t present any new information. Personally, I’m no stranger to agreeing on all the facts but still holding a differing opinion than my colleagues. His message did prompt me to take another look at my own beliefs and ultimately led to a small epiphany.

I’ve often said that my position is a little unique within BICSI. In my profession, I represent an end customer that has a direct need to have someone with extensive cabling knowledge. Few organizations that are not dedicated to the cabling industry have a need for people with such expertise. But, as an end customer, I also sit in on discussions concerning the role of networking electronics, end user electronics, and the design of our data center. That puts me in a rather unique position; I sit in the role of an end user.

Mel’s eloquent support of Category 6 was presented as the position of a cabling system designer. As an end user, I can state that we will not ever be using 1000BaseTX electronics. By referencing our campus video group, I can state that will not need to distribute analog television signals across our academic buildings. With no need for either of those applications, Category 6 offers no value for its increased price.

Cabling designers and architectural engineering firms do not have that luxury; they cannot say with any certainty what their customers will do with the cabling plant they design. A designer may ask the end consumer what his needs are but we have all had the experience of a customer changing his mind. I know what applications I will need. Designers cannot hope to have an understanding of a customer’s needs that rival’s my own understanding of the University of Florida’s current and future application.

Given that, it behooves a cabling designer to specify Category 6 cabling. Their customer may be one of the few in the country that uses 1000BaseTX. Their customer my want to use the UTP cabling plant to distribute analog television signals. And if they don’t need it today, they may tomorrow. If the cabling plant does not support their application, the cabling designer may quite appropriately be held to blame.

But, before I give the impression of a changed man, we still don’t need Category 6 at the University of Florida. I would bet that most other customers don’t need it either. But, if I was designing a cabling system for another consumer, I might specify Category 6; sometimes it’s better to be safe.