Backbone cabling for beginners. (And intermediates and experts, too!)

Wired server working at full capacity

Backbone cabling is critical for almost every business. So whether you’re retrofitting an existing facility or building a new one, you’ll probably hear the term mentioned at least a couple times. 

It’s also kind of a complex topic. Depending how deeply you want to dig, it’s easy to feel like you’re in an Intro to Engineering course. (Or studying a foreign language!) So we’ll explain it in three ways – one for the total beginner, one for the business decision maker, and one for the IT pro. 

Feel free to stop reading when you’ve had enough!

“Explain it to me like I’m 10.”

Sure!

Backbone cabling connects the major hubs of your business. Like, attaching your Main Distribution Frame to the local Internet circuit. Or one building to another. Since it’s so foundational, you need to plan for it to last somewhere between three and 10 years.

There, that wasn’t so tricky, right?

Well, hold on…

“Give me the executive summary.”

You bet.

Just like the name suggests, backbone cabling connects the main ISP entrance point to the various enclosures on your premises or campus.

Backbone cabling

In this diagram, the ISP comes into the entrance facility and backbone cabling connects it to an equipment room and telecommunications hub. (In fact, that’s almost word-for-word how the Commercial Building Telecommunications Standard defines backbone cabling.)

Connecting the entrance facility to equipment and telecom hubs may require all sorts of different materials – copper or fiber cables, terminations, path cords, jumper cords or cross connects. And of course there are lots of elements that come later, as you hook up individual workstations or servers. But those are connected by something called “horizontal cabling.” 

Everything funnels into the backbone cabling.

“Tell me the details, without requiring an engineering degree.”

Your backbone cabling can be built out of three things: twisted copper pairs, multimode fiber or single mode fiber. Which you choose depends on the size of your business and the amount of data you need. 

Here are a few terms to know:

Maximum Length: Different cables can only carry information so far. Depending on where a cable lies in your topology, you might be forced to step up to a higher quality cable.

Attenuation: Simply put, attenuation is bad, because it reduces signal strength. The key to combating it is to provide the right cable for the right environment. For a short distance, copper may be fine. If the run is more than 100 meters, it’s better to rely on fiber. 

Width: We choose cables based on distance and mode – or how the fiber communicates. A long run is usually thinner “single mode” fiber, while shorter runs may be fine using “multimode.” But there are other factors that come into play as well, such as the type of equipment you’re using and the purpose of the cabling.

Wavelength: The distance between identical points on a waveform. The farther apart they are, the less attenuation you get, which means a cleaner signal.

Material
Copper
Multimode
Singlemode
Maximum length
Up to 100 meters
100 – 600 meters
No maximum length.
Width
N/A
62.5 or 50 microns
8 – 10 micrometers
Wavelength
N/A
850 – 1300
1300 – 1550
Attenuation
Low
Lower
Lowest

You can see that single mode cable is best, and sometimes essential to connect buildings that are far apart. But if cost is a factor, multimode cabling works for many businesses. And copper cabling can supplement either along the way.

Congratulations, you’re a backbone cabling pro!

Like any technical topic, backbone cabling can be as complex as you want to make it. But ironically, its benefit is simple:

Simplicity. 

If you can accurately forecast the needs of your business, you can lay a backbone that will last for years to come. And then forget about it!

Have Questions?

The TEC Integration team can help!

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Andy and Ryan from TEC are a pleasure to work with. They are smart, responsive and explain any issues or solutions in terms that even a non-geek can understand. I cannot think of better people to work with when it comes to building security such as they installed in our 8 unit Condo.

Martin Mandel October 20, 2021