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Surprise—Copper Cables Still Dominate Industrial Networks

Posted by Patrick Nixdorf | 2/27/18 8:00 AM

We’ve been talking a lot about the security implications of the Industrial Ethernet as traditionally closed networks adapt to demands for improved bandwidth and open connectivity.

However, cyber attacks aren’t the only things that can bring an industrial network down—you have to make sure you have the right approach to network connectivity as well.

Let’s take a look at why copper cabling is so popular for Industrial Ethernet and how network architects can best approach their connectivity options.

While fiber cables are on the rise, a recent Technavio study found that not only are copper cables more prevalent for Industrial Ethernet deployments—they dominate the space with 77% market share.

For Now, Copper Cabling Is Better Suited for Tough Industrial Environments

Two of fiber’s greatest advantages are its performance in terms of data transfer speeds and its ability to carry data over long distances (hundreds of meters and beyond). These are attractive benefits for the data center market, but are not the chief concerns for Industrial Ethernet designs.

Gigabit Ethernet is essential for today’s manufacturers and industrial networks to transmit real-time data, but not at the cost of robust connectors and cabling that can withstand the harsh conditions of the factory floor. According to Technavio, this is a key reason why copper cabling is so dominant in industrial settings.

The most popular copper cabling in the data center market is Cat5e because it supports gigabit speeds without the price tag of fiber alternatives. However, copper cabling isn’t dominating the Industrial Ethernet because of Cat5e—Technavio says the 77% market share is due in large part because of Cat6 and Cat6a cabling.

cat6 ca6a

The main benefit of Cat6 and Cat6a cabling (aside from the performance upgrade from Cat5e) is their support for more robust sheathing. Thicker cables and tighter twisted pairs make Cat6 and Cat6a copper more reliable than other Industrial Ethernet cabling options while also performing at speeds between 100MB and 1G to support modern operations.

Cat6 and Cat6a cables may not be able to span the distances that fiber counterparts can while transferring gigabit Ethernet, but on most factory floors it’s unlikely that they would have to. The main concern is eliminating errors and signal-to-noise ratios that can jeopardize critical infrastructure.

Watch the Demo on Industrial Ethernet Now!


Two Types of Noise that Copper Addresses Best

There are plenty of valuable use cases for fiber (both in data centers and in industrial settings), but efficiency, cost, and reliability concerns mean Industrial Ethernet environments must continue to focus on copper.

From a reliability standpoint, Cat6 and Cat6a copper cabling help to reduce or eliminate noise in the form of near-end crosstalk (NeXT) and alien crosstalk (AXT):

  • Near-End Crosstalk: Data transfer errors occur when wires within a twisted pair are crushed, causing signals from two different conductors to interfere. The result is packet loss; which industrial Ethernet environments can’t afford.
  • Alien Crosstalk: This situation is similar to NeXT in that electromagnetic noise causes packet loss. However, AXT is when signals from separate cables interfere with one another.

Cat6 and Cat6a copper cables specifically address these crosstalk issues, making them ideal choices for network architects designing Industrial Ethernet environments.

Despite the industrial benefits of copper cabling, Technavio recognizes that the market for fiber optic cable is growing rapidly and fiber’s ability to withstand radio/electromagnetic interference is improving. We’re heading toward a fiber-centric future and even industrial networks must be ready.

Supporting Both Copper and Fiber Is a Necessity for Future-Proof Networks

For obvious reasons, industrial networks have always lagged behind data centers in terms of technology innovation. However, demands are increasing rapidly and even the most critical infrastructures have to be ready for Ethernet connectivity.

It’s unrealistic to think critical infrastructure networks can be overhauled from traditional copper to fiber optics all at once, so the new normal is a hybrid network. Supporting both copper and fiber interchangeably is essential—and having the right connectivity solutions in place is just as important. Garland’s media changing TAPs accommodate copper to fiber for 1G and 10G networks.


Want more on Industrial Ethernet? Check out our short video discussing the different Network Connectivity options for Industrial Ethernet environments.

Topics: Network Infrastructure, Industrial Ethernet

Written by Patrick Nixdorf

Patrick Nixdorf is a System Engineer for Garland Technology in the Frankfurt, Germany office, providing pre and post-sales support, as well as solution design for EMEA and APAC. He has over 10 years of experience in the networking industry, primarily in the TAP business.