Even in light of this seemingly wireless-everything world in which we live, network cables still have a place—and a rather important one at that. Whether you are the administrator of a large corporate network or simply in charge of your own home network cabling kingdom, you will be faced with the task of selecting cables.
Because there are different types of cables with specific benefits tied to specific situations, it is important to get a good understanding of what’s available to help you make the right choice the first time.
Who let the CAT’s out?
If you’ve spent any time at all looking for Ethernet cables, whether in-store or online, you’ll no doubt have seen a lot of mention of cats. Choosing Cat 5, Cat 6 or versions thereof should be the first order of business when cable shopping.
- Cat 5
You can consider this the slow cooker of cables not just because it is slow but because it’s so on its way out that you may only find it in your grandmother’s house and the old-fashioned corner barbershop owned and operated by Art (who has owned and operated it for the past 60 years).
Ok, well maybe it’s not that almost-obsolete but it’s getting there. What you need to know about Cat 5 cables is that they provided Ethernet and Fast Ethernet compatibility and, while once the golden standard for speed and reliability these are likely the cables you will now be replacing. Fortunately, newer versions are backward compatible with these.
- Cat 5e
Cat 5e moved cable speed from the slow cooker to the stovetop and added compatibility for up to 1 Gigabit Ethernet transmissions over short distances. The advent of Cat 5e offers
reduced crosstalk that did as much to improve transmission reliability and speed as did the ability to manage Gigabit Ethernet.
This is still considered the standard for cables today, but a quick glance forward indicates that Cat5e’s time in the limelight is drawing to a close. For new home applications, it is still a highly viable option and would be recommended but for business or commercial needs, consideration should be given to the next step up.
- Cat 6
Cat 6 is tomorrow’s leader of the pack for CAT cabling although its differences with and advantages over Cat 5e are not revolutionary. It’s like moving your pot from a regular burner to the power burning that delivers more BTU’s for faster cooking.
Cat 6 cables can support transmissions up to 250 MHz. While Cat5e cables support Gigabit Ethernet in limited locales, Cat 6 supports it unilaterally in all applications. It also features improved interference blocking over Cat 5 technology thanks to its tightly twisted pairs and added insulation. If you are looking to upgrade your network and your budget can support it now, moving straight to Cat 6 today will save you from needing to upgrade in just a few years.
- Cat 6a
Ah, behold the microwave for those folks who just can’t bear to wait for anything. The “a” in Cat 6a stands for augmented. Like other “augmentations”, it is bigger than its Cat 6 counterpart but that also means it is less flexible and less able to bend when and where needed. This important fact should be taken into consideration and could often make Cat 6 the superior choice.
Cat 6a cabling supports not only Ethernet, Fast Ethernet and Gigabit Ethernet but also 10 Gigabit Ethernet speeds. High-performance applications such as server farms, SANs and data centers are the most logical places where Cat 6a cabling would be appropriately used today.
When choosing your next “cat”, it is important to balance future-proofing, your “true” need for speed and the logistics of your application.
Is a Solid or Stranded cable better?
Ok, at the risk of sounding like the politician that never gives a straight answer the answer to that question depends. On what, you ask? On what you need to do and where you need to do it.
Solid cables, as the name implies, are solid by nature, featuring single construction. This solid nature makes them strong and able to transmit data over long distances. However, they are not very flexible or bendable. For this reason, solid cables are excellent for funneling through walls and other conduits where bends are limited.
Stranded cables feature multiple filaments that together create one cable. This construction delivers very good flexibility making them highly useful for applications in which you must bend and route cables in a variety of directions or over and under things. They also provide better performance in short distances.
What’s with the Plenum?
As tempting as it is to delve into a full etymology lesson here, I won’t. Simply put, the plenum is the space above a dropped ceiling or below a raised floor. It is through here that cables required to meet strict fire safety standards are routed. Such cables feature fire-resistant coatings and, due to their placement in the plenum, they are referred to as plenum cables. They are available in both solid and stranded construction.
In case you’re wondering what etymology is, look it up. Haha! Well, we did it for you.
Should You Patch or Crossover?
No, you will never actually “patch” your cables. Patch cables are simply a type of cable, sometimes called straight cables. They are used to connect different network components together. The two ends of these cables are the same. You would use a patch cable when connecting a modem to a router, hub, computer or wireless access point or when connecting a computer to a patch panel, hub or wall plate.
Crossover cables have different (crossed-over) wiring patterns at the two ends of the cables. They are used for connecting two like devices such as two switches, two computers, two hubs or two access points.
When to get Shielded
Shielded cables, also referred to as Shielded Twisted Pair (STP) cables, include protective foil around the cables to prevent interference from electromagnetic or radio frequencies. This maintains data integrity and facilitates the cable’s ability to successfully transmit data. When your network may be affected by generators, elevators or multiple lighting sources, putting up your shield is important.
Go forth and get cabled!
Let this guide be your primer when shopping for new network cables. Don’t, however, be afraid to call on the geeks here at CablesAndKits if you have additional questions or just want to be extra, extra, extra, extra sure you’re selecting the right cable for your needs.