22 February 2009

Plastic and the All-Wireless Workplace

When IT engineers discuss the “all-wireless workplace,” they don’t intend the phrase to be taken literally. Electric power, fire/life safety systems, and heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration (HVACR) systems all rely on wire cabling for their operation. So, too, do the high speed cores of data networks, where a combination of 10 gigabit Ethernet and even higher speed fiber optic cabling serve as highways for data, voice, and video packets. These cabling applications are unlikely to disappear in even the distant future.

Rather, the phrase “all-wireless” refers to the means by which users access a data network. Wireless LANs used to be considered a nice-to-have overlay on top of a primarily Ethernet –based wired LAN. No longer. The advent of high-speed adaptive 802.11n wireless LANs has stood the structured-cabling world on its head.

Consider that a typical corporate user is outfitted with 3-4 Ethernet ports. That’s four closet switch ports, possibly multiple power-over-Ethernet (PoE) injectors, four cable runs up to 100 meters each, and a four jack plastic wall plate. Per person.

In contrast, twenty users can be serviced simultaneously by a single 802.11n access point – fed by a single gigabit Ethernet drop and PoE injector – thereby eliminating roughly 80 Ethernet cables, switch ports, and wall outlets. Across even a small enterprise the savings will be substantial.

It’s no wonder that noted Burton Group industry analyst Paul Debeasi in 2007 penned a much-cited report titled 802.11n: The End of Ethernet? in which he notes that 802.11n and its successor products will erode the switched Ethernet market. Or that industry analyst Yankee Group noted in a report titled It’s the Economy, Stupid: Yankee Group’s 2009 Predictions that by the end of this year 802.11n will cause a slowdown, followed by a decline, in wired network switch port sales.

The movement from wired to all-wireless network access will have significant cost and environmental ramifications – and will be the subject of many future posts. For now let’s investigate just one facet of the cable displacement movement – plastic.

Cable insulation, cable management/trunking systems, and wiring device accessories like plugs and boots, are make of plastic. PVC, polyethylene, polypropylene, synthetic rubber, MIC, nylon, phenol formaldehyde. Cabling systems are virtual chemistry sets, and each chemical has an impact on the environment - when the part is made, when it’s used, should it catch fire, and when it is ultimately discarded.

In The Green Building Handbook authors Tom Woolley and Sam Kimmons have been kind enough to list and rank the environmental impact of wiring according to energy consumption, resource consumption, global warming, acid rain, ozone depletion, toxicity, photochemical smog, occupational health, recycling impact, and hormone disruption…among other factors.

It should come as no surprise that the manufacture of copper cable has a substantial impact on energy consumption, resource consumption, global warming, ozone depletion, etc. In fact, virtually every component of a structured cabling system – the cable, cable insulation, cable management, plugs, sockets, wall plates, and cable ties – requires considerable energy to create and consumes vast amounts of non-biological resources.

However, the dirty little secret is the toxicity of the plastics used in these parts. PVC is a commonly used insulation material, and contains lead and other toxic chemicals. Not only does it require special handling at the disposal site – something it rarely receives – but it produces highly toxic chemicals when burned. Polyethylene, polypropylene, synthetic rubber, and nylon are only slightly less toxic.

The Green Building Handbook includes a well laid-out table on page 60 where you can study in greater detail the environmental damage done during the life-cycle of a wiring system. Just remember that every time an Ethernet system needs to be expanded, moved, or replaced, the environmental toll rises. This handbook should be mandatory reading for every IT manager!

Adaptive 802.11n is a high speed way to make the world a better place sooner. For the sake of the planet, the all-wireless workplace cannot arrive soon enough.