Cat6A - All you need to know

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Although Cat 6A first appeared in 2004 in the form of CommScope’s SYSTIMAX® GigaSPEED® X10D, it would not be formally published as a standard until 2009. By then, however, it was known across the industry as the cabling category of the future that would enable the next wave of high-bandwidth copper connectivity. This was why cabling manufacturers quickly tried to replicate it and standards bodies were compelled to publish an agreed standard.

Looking back, we see that it has enabled the development and deployment of many bandwidth-hungry applications that today’s enterprises cannot do without. And it is not finished yet – it remains the recommended infrastructurei for modern new-builds and promises to remain relevant for many years to come. Proof of its success can be seen in the sales volume that continues to grow, almost two decades after the initial draft of the standard.

In this article, we will also explore why Cat 6A took over previous categories (Cat 5, Cat 5e, Cat 6) and why it’s a better option than – theoretically superior – copper cabling types such as Cat 7, Cat 7A and even Cat 8.

Related Article: Cat6 vs Cat6A

In October 2004 Cat 6A was born. It was ahead of its time, and was deliberately designed to provide maximum ‘future-proofing’

Evolution and use

Evolution of Cat6A

We have always known that enterprise networks need to evolve rapidly to support the growing demand for bandwidth-hungry applications. End users take advantage of these applications to exchange more information in novel ways, and enterprise organizations generally find ways of consuming as much bandwidth as offered up to them very quickly.

With this in mind, the industry realized back in 2004 that it needed to escape the confines of 1000Mbps Cat5 and Cat6 cabling categories. The next step in the evolution of networking was obvious: the world needed 10 Gigabit Ethernet and the IEEE 802.3an 10GBASE-T Task Force was entrusted with the task of developing the standard.

Due to the expected complexity of electronics to support 10GBASE-T, an early objective to support Category 5e had been dropped, and the exact maximum distance over minimally compliant Cat6 cabling was still uncertain. The final mandatory objective for the IEEE 802.3an project was “at least 55m to 100m” over Cat6 or better cabling. Many expected that, as the clever chip designers further dive into this project, novel techniques would be developed which would increase the minimum guaranteed distance over generic Cat6 cabling.

In simple terms, there were three ways of transmitting higher bit rates over cabling. One was to improve the cabling performance, the second was to improve the technology in the electronics, and the third required a mixture of both. The latter was true for 10 Gigabit over copper. Transmitting 2.5 Gb/s on each of the four pairs was no easy task: it required multi-level coding that transmitted multiple bits per hertz, and channel bandwidth greater than that specified in the existing Cat6 standards. Sophisticated Digital Signal Processing (DSP) techniques were also required to reduce the effects of within-channel impairments such as return loss and crosstalk (NEXT and FEXT). However, there was also one parameter that could not be compensated for in the electronics – Alien Crosstalk (the noise from adjacent cabling channels).

The IEEE 802.3an Task Force began actively exploring these issues, and interfacing with the ISO and TIA cabling standards to converge on its cabling channel requirements. The result of these developments led the IEEE 802.3an Task Force to adopt minimum cabling channel specifications for 10GBASE-T, and to recognize officially what became known as Model 1 Alien NEXT and Insertion Loss as the Model applicable to “Augmented” Cat6 or “new” Class E (Class EA). In addition, the Task Force agreed to set the maximum required channel frequency at 500 MHz.

Thus, with the publication of the draft standard in October 2004, Cat 6A was born. It was ahead of its time, and was deliberately designed to provide maximum ‘future-proofing’. One key aspect of its suitability as the infrastructure for a new generation of applications and uses was that it made PoE (Power over Ethernet) a possibility. Not only could Cat 6A support 10Gbps speeds, but it also greatly expands the ability for device manufacturers to deliver higher power and bandwidth anywhere, without distance limitations –other than the maximum channel length of 100 m–, because devices can be located anywhere within reach of a PoE switch and not an AC outlet.

Almost two decades later, Cat 6A is the dominant copper twisted pair category – and is still recommended for all new-build applications. Read on to find out how it works, how to implement it, and how it is a networking bedrock upon which future multi-gigabit applications and services will be built.

Global Copper Cabling Market

Comparison Cat 5e, Cat6, Cat7, Cat7A, Cat8

Cat6a comparison

Cat 6A Applications

Large enterprises are faced with a growing need to accommodate ever more sophisticated applications. Any structured cabling implementation should be independent of these considerations, providing a stable, high-speed infrastructure that is technology-agnostic.

Horizontal standard office applications: Most phones and laptops do not yet require the 10 Gbps bandwidth, but using Cat 6A as the default cabling infrastructure provides a future-proof infrastructure. It may be years until such everyday applications require such bandwidth, but it will be there when needed.

IoT: As IoT devices begin to proliferate, Cat 6A provides both the bandwidth and, potentially, the power requirements. Find out more about how IoT is changing the fabric of business and everyday life.

PoE/lighting: As mentioned, IoT devices such as sensors or cameras have a ready source of power across Cat 6A, and it is also increasingly used to power lighting systems, made possible by the development of low-voltage LEDs. Cat 6 cabling does enable PoE, but may be prone to heat problem.

Wi-Fi 6/6E: Cat 6A is necessary to deliver the multi-gigabit backhaul required by the next-generation of Wi-Fi. Find out how Wi-Fi 6 and 6e provides the performance and capacity needed by mobile users, IoT devices, and latency-sensitive applications.

In-Building Cellular: Multi-gigabit backhaul is also required for DAS installations, necessitated by increased reliance on cellular networks alongside Wi-Fi.

Storage Area Networks (SAN)/ Network Attached Storage (NAS): 10 Gigabit Ethernet enables cost-effective, high-speed infrastructure for both network-attached storage (NAS) and storage area networks (SAN). 10 Gigabit Ethernet can offer equivalent or superior data-carrying capacity at latencies similar to many other storage networking technologies, including Fiber Channel, ATM OC-3, OC-12 and OC-192, and InfiniBand. The development of 10 Gigabit over copper will offer a very cost-effective solution for connection under 100 meters compared to these traditional fiber based technologies.

High-Performance Computing: A number of industry sectors utilize high-performance computing platforms to support highly bandwidth-intensive applications such as streaming video, medical imaging, centralized applications, high-end graphics, visualization technologies, and data clustering.

Multi-Site Collaboration: Collaboration tools are emerging that enable conference participants to write or draw on a blank slide, to connect to a Web site, and engage in private communication with the conferencing host or any other participants. To ensure their effectiveness, these collaborative tools will increasingly require more bandwidth, and 10 Gigabit Ethernet connections will be the primary link for enabling multi-site collaboration within an enterprise.

Streaming Media, AV systems and Digital Signage: Streaming media enhances a company’s internal and external communications. It can play a role in hosting meetings, holding press conferences, demonstrating new products, supporting marketing/advertising activities, training employees, providing user support as well as the fun stuff too, like HDTV, video on-demand or extreme Internet gaming. Since data being transmitted for streaming media requires an uninterrupted path between source and user, bandwidth will be the key enabler and accelerator to streaming media adoption.

Grid Computing: Grid computing makes “spare” desktop CPU horsepower available across the network to large jobs that require it. There are many scientific applications that need the computing power of arrays, but up to now the cost of a supercomputer or a massively parallel array was prohibitive. Grid computing is a technique that effectively provides the horsepower “across the network” to support these kinds of applications. Grid computing is highly dependent upon very fast interconnections among all of the participating computing platforms. Today, grid computing is being used to amass spare compute cycles in datacenters to power complex modeling and simulations in applications such as pharmaceutical research, financial portfolio risk analysis, electronic design automation and other computer-intensive applications. For grids to be the basis of a corporate infrastructure, more types of applications that can take advantage of the grid will be developed but in the meantime, grid technologies can and are being used to facilitate resource sharing, utilization and collaboration for a growing number of applications and industries.

Qualities of Cat 6A

Top 10 reasons to choose Cat 6A

  1. Cat6A is recommended for new installations in healthcare facilities. Published in 2010, TIA-1179 recommends Cat6A for all new installations in healthcare facilities and was the first standard to recommend Cat6A for new installations outside of the data center.
  2. Cat6A is recommended for new installations in educational facilities. Published in 2014, TIA-4966 recommends Cat6A for new education facilities based on the need for high-performance infrastructure required for wired and wireless connectivity.
  3. Cat6A supports 10GBASE-T to 100 meters. Cat6A’s support of 10GBASE-T to 100 meters ensures it can support the fastest Ethernet applications over twisted pair media on the market to the full channel length specified in the standards (TIA-568 and ISO/IEC 11801 to quote a few). This comes at a time when high-performance workstations are beginning to demand 10 gigabit performance as well.
  4. 10GBASE-T provides improved price performance and lower power consumption. Dramatic improvements to 10GBASE-T over the last few years result in significantly lower overall price and power efficiency per gigabit than 1000BASE-T. It looks like the old industry saying, “Today’s server is tomorrow’s desktop,” may be applicable to 10GBASE-T.
  5. Cat6A supports the familiar and backwards compatible RJ45 user interface. Cat6A supports the tried and true, familiar, and backwards-compatible RJ45 interface. The RJ45 demonstrated the power of standardization, has enabled the global growth of Ethernet as we know it, and has become a universal interface for a broad range of applications.
  6. Cat6A supports new in-building wireless systems that rely on 10G technology. Contrary to popular belief, wireless needs wires. New in-building wireless systems relying on 10GBASE-T LAN technology and remote powering over Cat6A that support multi-operator and multi-technology coverage and capacity solutions in buildings are already in the market.
  7. Cat6A supports Wi-Fi technologies already exceeding 1 Gbps. Today’s 802.11ax (aka Wi-Fi 6) access points can have a maximum speed of 6.77 Gbps, which would require a 10GBASE-T connection to operate at the highest data rate they are capable of running. TSB-162-A, Telecommunications Cabling Guidelines for Wireless Access Points, also recommends running at least Cat6A or higher cabling to all wireless access points.
  8. Cat6A is globally available in unshielded and shielded versions. The debate about the virtues of unshielded and shielded solutions will continue. Cat6A (and CommScope) supports both, while customers continue to speak with their wallets in favor of the more familiar, and easier to install, unshielded solutions.
  9. Cat6A provides superior performance for Power over Ethernet (PoE) applications. At a time when the PoE standards are updated to double the power delivered to devices utilizing all four pairs in the cable, Cat6A offers enhanced thermal dissipation performance over its Category 5e and Category 6 predecessors. Read more in this white paper on Cat6A advantages for PoE.
  10. Cat6A offers simple and cost-effective provisioning to support current and emerging applications. Cat6A offers the most cost-effective and simple provisioning to prepare today’s buildings for current and future applications. With 10 gigabit applications starting to emerge, the time is right to consider provisioning the building with the right copper cabling infrastructure based on Cat6A twisted pair connectivity.

Lowest cost per transmitted gigabit!

Ongoing improvement of Cat 6A

Initial concerns
When the first wave of Cat6A cable came out, some commented on the fact that it was significantly larger and heavier than the average Cat 6 cable. However, over the last decade or so, improvements have been made to address such concerns, making it slimmer and lighter. There were other initial differences too, such as only being available on reels instead of convenient pull-boxes, but most suppliers have addressed this (eg CommScope’s use of WeTote boxes).

Lack of specification?
In addition, given the relative complexity and sophistication of Cat 6A, it is important to test, yet many vendors failed to provide a guaranteed performance or specification document. The result was that many Cat 6A deployments would go live without adequate testing. Full specifications of SYSTIMAX GigaSPEED X10D, however, can be found in this guide.

Worth the weight
While Cat 6A remains a more substantial cable than its predecessor, its ability to carry 10 Gbps over longer distances and reduce crosstalk more than outweighs such considerations. The equivalent of 10x Cat 6 cables that would be required to match the performance of Cat 6A would be unmanageable!

Cat 6A Products

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