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Sandia houses world’s largest fiber optic network

Photonics Spectra
May 2013

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The largest fiber optic local area network (LAN) in the world, pioneered by Sandia National Laboratories, is expected to reduce energy costs by 65 percent when fully operational.

The network pulls together 265 buildings and 13,000 computer network ports, and brings high-speed communication to some of the labs’ most remote technical areas for the first time. It will save an estimated $20 million over five years through energy and other savings, and will decrease the need for replacement equipment.

Fiber offers far more capacity, is more secure and reliable and is less expensive to maintain and operate than traditional copper-cable networks. It’s smaller, too: An optical LAN uses 1/2-in. fiber optic cables made of 288 individual fibers, instead of the conventional 4-in. copper cables. The fiber distribution system uses only part of the conduit and needs only a 2 x 3-ft cable box.

Steve Gossage, a senior engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, looks at fiber optics in a cable box that replaced heavier and bulkier copper cable for high-speed communication throughout much of the facility. Fiber offers more capacity and is more reliable than copper.

Sandia completed a formal network plan in late 2008 and sought competitive bids the following year. It selected Tellabs of Naperville, Ill., as the equipment vendor for the network, and simultaneously began the deployment of the fiber infrastructure and set up a test lab to validate the performance of configurations for the equipment and various network functions. The technology began moving to desktops in 2011, and by the end of 2012, Sandia had converted more than 90 percent of bulky copper cable to a fiber optics LAN.

Sandia, which will spend about $15 million on the project, needs superb computing capability for the problems it tackles as part of its support for the mission for the National Nuclear Security Administration.

“Whether it’s a materials science problem or modeling an event, we need a lot of data and a lot of processing capability,” said senior engineer Steve Gossage, who has spent his 36-year career at Sandia in advanced information and network systems engineering. “We need to be able to see it; we need to be able to view it; we need to be able to put teams together. This is a large laboratory, deeply stocked with scientists and engineers and test labs. For the analyses we get, the problems are not small and they’re not easy.”

Decades ago, when Sandia began putting in single-mode fiber to desks and adding underground fiber capabilities, the technology wasn’t mature enough to take advantage of fiber optics’ inherent multiple wavelengths and speeds.

But Sandia continued to install the fiber optic cable foundation and moved quickly when commercial optical networks began deploying voice, data and video to large collections of homes and offices. “There weren’t that many unknowns for us because we had been thinking about ways to do this on a large scale for quite a while,” Gossage said. “We had already thought through what this might mean to us, what it might mean to our lifecycle costs and where the investments would be, and we were already pretty comfortable with fiber and the technologies that go with it.”

Buildings with conventional copper LANs have separate networks for phones, computers, wireless, security, etc. Fiber optics, on the other hand, puts everything in a single network cable, eliminating a large number of power-consuming switches and routers to make the network simpler to operate and cheaper to install. It also requires less space, so energy and maintenance costs go down. The only copper wire for most of Sandia today is a short connection from the wall to the desktop. Everything behind the wall is fiber.

Sandia is recycling copper as it’s replaced, keeping valuable material out of a landfill. The estimated $80,000 for the recycled copper will offset some of the fiber optics cost.

More change could be coming. A small trial is under way for voice-over-fiber – putting data and voice in one system rather than the two Sandia uses today. Sandia also is working with a small number of researchers who need more bandwidth than they are getting. The labs’ needs are ahead of the market, but Sandia is pushing for next-generation increases in speed, Gossage said.

optical communications
The transmission and reception of information by optical devices and sensors.
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