How fiber optics can future-proof a data center on an uncertain budget

The more data center managers know about extending the life of their equipment and infrastructure, the better prepared they’ll be to influence the procurement process and take advantage of funds that do become available.

Unless and until we see governmentwide modernization extend to the handling of IT budgets (of the kind outlined so well here), agencies running data centers must work within existing constraints to improve their infrastructure. Among the most frustrating of those constraints is budgetary uncertainty.

Even with unpredictable funding, though, it is possible for agency data center leaders to prepare their facilities to meet ever-increasing speed and bandwidth demands. Here are two tactics that may, depending on a data center’s situation, prove effective.

Tactic 1: Consider dark fiber

While dark fiber isn’t a workable solution in every situation, it can offer significant cost savings and performance improvements under the right conditions. 

Dark fibers are the “unlit” fibers in cabling that’s already been laid by various ISPs. Because of the high cost to lay cable, most ISPs put in far more than they need. In many cases, unused fibers (or unused frequencies within a fiber) are available for purchase or long-term lease.

Unlike ISPs, dark fiber offers a fixed cost, regardless of how much bandwidth a data center uses. For data centers that exceed 1 gigabit/sec (and those that expect to in the near future), dark fiber is likely a cost-effective alternative to an ISP.

The major downside of buying or renting dark fiber is that there is usually a significant upfront cost involved. This may include an initial cash outlay for the lease and purchasing the termination equipment required to take advantage of dark fiber’s capabilities for every point of the network.

However, these large one-time costs actually work within the typical constraints of government IT budgets: An unexpected cash infusion with a year-end expiration date may be well suited for implementing a dark-fiber network.

Tactic 2: Extend the life of existing fiber-optic connections

As data use increases substantially year after year, data center managers will be tasked with finding ways to keep up. Those on a tight or uncertain budget will likely be in search of ways to “do more with less.”

As impossible as that dictum might feel, there are practical ways to extend the life of existing fiber. Often, upgrading certain termination equipment, for example, can extend the output capacity of existing fibers, thus extending their life (see this image for more details). This saves money by letting data center managers delay large-scale infrastructure upgrades without delaying performance improvements.

Of course, understanding the potential of various fiber types is only the first part of the battle. Once engineers have a vision for how they can extend the life of their cable trays, they have to convince the people in charge to put out proposals and actually buy the updated equipment that would squeeze an extra five to 10 years out of existing infrastructure and free up funds for other projects.

As a starting point, here’s a guide to the maximum distance various fiber types can handle at 100G speeds, along with the transceivers required to reach those distances:

Link Type

Fiber Type

Max Distance

Passive copper

Pre-terminated cables

5m

Active copper

Pre-terminated cables

15m

Active optical 

Pre-terminated cables

500m

SR4

Parallel (4 TX and 4 RX with MPO connector) multimode fiber (MMF)

100m on OM4 fiber

75m on OM3 fiber

SWDM4

Duplex MMF

100m on OM4

75m on OM3

BiDi

Duplex MMF

100m on OM4

70m on OM3

CWDM4 lite

Duplex single-mode fiber (SMF)

500m

CWDM4

Duplex SMF

2km

4WDM

Duplex SMF

10km

PSM4

Parallel (4 TX and 4 RX with MPO connector) SMF

2km

LR4

Duplex SMF

10km

Knowledge is power for government data center managers

While it’s impossible to offer a one-size-fits-all solution for improving the performance of government data centers, it’s also true that knowledge is power: The more data center managers know about the tactics and strategies that can extend the life of their equipment and infrastructure, the better prepared they’ll be to influence the procurement process and take advantage of funds that do become available.

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