Upgrade Comparison: Cat6a vs. Cat7 vs. Fiber Cabling Analysis
We were asked to bid on a cabling project that was fairly straight-forward. It involved replacing the existing Cat5e cable with either Cat6a, Cat7 or fiber cable. The site was an open, standard modern office with a drop ceiling and hollow office walls. The client needed 64 single drops to existing faceplates, three new 24-port patch panels and patch cables.
The need for higher speeds by the client was created by a demand for faster access to larger files from the Server. This potential client was involved with heavy drafting and multimedia applications that require more bandwidth through the cabling system. Cat5e yields up to 1000Base-T, 1-Gigabit, data transfer speed.
The challenge is in deciding on which type of cable to use. Cat6a and fiber are very standard solutions. But Cat7 is not at all a standard installation yet (and might not ever be one). The problems with Cat7 are that the cable is very heavy, very expensive, prone to interference and it is difficult to terminate. And all of the cable connections need to be grounded. There is a newer Cat7f standard that is trying to deal with these issues. But, for now, Cat6a or fiber are the best options for a cost-effective solution that will yield speed and reliability.
To begin with, Cat6a is a much more established standard than Cat7. It is easier to install and has less connectivity issues. We are not going to recommend or bid on a Cat7 solution. Cat6a can run at speeds of up to 10-Gigabit so if that is acceptable for the next 10 years, than we recommend Cat 6a or fiber.
Category 6a Cabling Advantages
- Not to be confused with Cat6, Cat6a is twice as fast as Cat6
- Cat6 is 10-Gigabits for maximum length of 55m. Cat6a lengths can go up to 100m (like Cat5).
- Can handle speed performance of up to 500 MHz. This fast performance makes it possible to use with a fast ethernet network including Gigabit Ethernet and 10-Gigabit Ethernet.
- Cat6a is backward-compatible with existing network cards and connectors
- Lowest cost solution and maybe most cost-effective choice
Category 6a Cabling Disadvantages
- Might not provide enough speed over the life of the cable. Although it really is hard to imagine needing more than 10-Gigabit over the next 10 – 15 years.
Cat7 should not be considered because it is not a highly established standard like Cat6a. So, there are too many risks. With all of these solutions, upgrades to switches and network cards will be needed in order to take full advantage of the new cabling speed capability.
Category 7 Cabling Advantages
- Higher Bandwidth of up to 600 MHz as compared with Cat 5e (100 MHz) & Cat 6e (250 MHz)
- Suitable for installing in strong RFI & EMI environment (not an issue for LWV)
- Moving from existing copper based LAN without having to change the existing electronics
- Secure transmission shielding keeps signal within cable
Category 7 Cabling Disadvantages
- It is not a solid, established industry standard. No known installs among my distributors.
- Individual pair and overall shielding increases the overall weight and size of cable. Hence needs larger & stronger pathway and more stringent bend radius (100 mm or 4 inch). Cat 7 is very heavy cable.
- Individual pair and overall shielding means higher labor costs and more work towards cable termination.
- Bandwidth of 600 MHz is useful but the client may have ground loop problems, if both ends of the cable are connected to ground. Ground loops are a major cause of noise, hum, and interference in audio, video, and computer systems. They can also create an electric shock hazard, since ostensibly “grounded” parts of the equipment, which are often accessible to users, are not at ground potential.
The Fiber Optic Solution
Going to fiber cabling will require an immediate migration to newer fiber network interface cards on all of the computers and Server(s). That means that the migration to fiber must also include the simultaneous installation of new fiber cards. This greatly amplifies the difficulty of this project. Cat6a and Cat7 cables are backward compatible to the existing network interface cards. So, the migration will be relatively painless. And the migration to newer cards can take place over a longer period of time.
Advantages of Fiber Optic cables
- Long distance transmission
- Immune to RFI & EMI
- Intrinsic security of transmission
- Light weight
- Lower life cycle costs
- Higher data capacity
- Smaller size
Potential Disadvantages of Fiber
- Requires all new switches and network interface cards
- Would require keeping old cabling in place with new fiber connections added to existing wallplates
- Higher setup cost than copper solutions above because of the costs of adding new fiber network cards to every desktop computer and server
- Fiber connectors are less forgiving of abuse than copper connectors
Please note: Clients often misunderstand that buying a cabling upgrade alone will NOT offer them the entire bandwidth at every workstation. In truth, the new cable will only yield the full speed if every single component in the network (including switches and network cards) are also upgraded to match the new cabling system. If the switches and network cards are not upgraded, your network will operate at the slowest device’s speed. So, immediately upgrading the switch is critical. And as you also upgrade the network cards, full speeds will be realized.
Recommended Solution: Cat6a because it is the safest choice that gives 10-Gigabit speeds and an easier migration path.
Do you agree?