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LAN & WAN How To

Cabling

It's impossible to set up a LAN Party without the LAN and the one thing in common to every LAN is the cabling connecting everything together. To be assured of top performance and reliable connectivity, it helps a lot to know what you're working with when it comes to cabling.

The three primary attributes of cabling you will want to be familiar with are the category of the cable, the core type, and the jacket type. Almost every conceivable combination is available, but knowing which combination is best will save you a lot of time and money! The cable category is the first decision you'll need to make.

You can read through Table 1, which contains a summary of the commonly-available UTP (Unshielded Twisted Pair) cabling Category types. But the short story is that you should only use either CAT 5e or CAT 6 cabling.

Cable Category Generally used for
3 Telephone wiring, legacy 10 Mbps-only Ethernet, legacy 4-Mbps token-ring
4 16-Mbps token-ring. Not commonly used
5 10 / 100 Mbps Ethernet. Considered "legacy" and replaced by CAT 5e
5e 10 / 100 / 1000 Mbps Ethernet
6 10 / 100 / 1000 Mbps Ethernet. CAT 6 cable supports higher bandwidth (200 MHz vs. 100 MHz) and has better electrical characteristics than CAT 5e.
Table 1: UTP cable categories

As with any commodity product, manufacturers try any way they can to differentiate their products. This is especially true with the most widely-used CAT 5e cabling. You may run across terms like "+" or "Enhanced", brand names like "MegaLAN", or even the use of a big "E" (CAT 5E), all of which are meant to indicate higher performance than required by the official TIA / EIA (Telecom/Electronic Industry Association) 568B spec.

In general, most of this is marketing hype and if you want to pay more for performance headroom or peace of mind, go for CAT 6 instead of "enhanced" 5e cabling. Check out this FAQ if you want more CAT 6 info, but keep in mind it's written by an industry consortium created to promote CAT 6 products.

Once you've chosen the cable category, you next need to decide on solid or stranded cable. Solid cable retains the most signal strength over distance, so I prefer to use it for cable runs between floor and core switches as these links will typically be 100 or more feet. One disadvantage to solid cable is that it is less flexible than stranded, so it's best used when punched down at a patch panel and not moved. Repeated flexing or bending of solid cable can cause wire breaks and connector pin disconnects. Since LAN parties force moving these cables for each event, you should use a cable tester on each cable during setup at each event.

Stranded cabling is very flexible and is typically used for short runs since it tends to lose more signal strength over distance when compared to solid core wire. Stranded cable also maintains a solid connection with an RJ45 connector, making it the ideal cable for use with your gaming rig or servers since you will move these more often and will not be putting them far from their connection.

The last choice you'll need to make when purchasing your cabling is the jacket type. Ethernet cable with a standard PVC jacket is the least expensive, but can emit poisonous fumes if exposed to flame. But for LAN Party purposes, this is not an issue, since all cabling is visible and not permanently installed.

Plenum jacketed cable is designed to be used for permanent installations in ducts or any space that is used to distribute air in a building. Plenum-rating cabling is designed not to burn easily and won't give off toxic fumes when exposed to heat or flame.

The latest jacket type that's even more costly than plenum is known as "LC" or Low Combustion. This type of jacket is specifically designed to simply "melt" when burned - burning this cable simply leaves a puddle of what looks like wax on the table. Many states are now requiring use of this cabling in raised floors of datacenters and utility companies, such as power and gas. LC is way overboard for LAN Parties - don't bother unless you have a major hook-up on the price.

To pull all of this info together, I suggest the following types of cabling for your LAN Party's network:

  • For switch uplinks from tables to core, go with solid core Category 5e or 6 cabling with a standard jacket
  • For cables for servers and / or game PCs, stick with stranded core Category 5e or better with a standard jacket

The decision you make between Category 5e (or its various enhanced flavors) and 6 is strictly one of pricing. For gigabit Ethernet there's no difference in performance with current technology switches and NICs. If the cost difference between CAT 6 and CAT 5e is minimal, and you like the idea of buying a little performance headroom, go ahead and spring for the upgrade. If CAT 6 turns out to break the bank, don't worry - 5e will do just fine for anything you're likely to need in the near future.

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