The need for reliable networks has never been greater. Emerging technologies, like the IoT, AR, autonomous vehicles, and advancements in 5G have seen a surge in high-speed bandwidth requirements. The COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated the need for fast and flawless connectivity in recent years as more people stayed at home and remote working and online learning became the norm.

One way that giant data-focused companies like Amazon and Google manage this massive data traffic and reliably deliver their services to their billions of customers is through the use of hyperscale data centers. These data centers usually feature all-fiber infrastructures because fiber optic cables will typically carry more data faster than copper cables, especially over long distances.  

Getting a piece of the action

Smaller companies are also feeling the pressure to meet the data expectations of their customers.  Many are requiring faster wireless speeds to manage high-level or high-volume tasks, like video streaming, image rendering, or managing high-traffic websites. They are leveraging colocation data centers by renting rack space for their servers or other network equipment inside the behemoth hyperscale facilities. They get the benefit of lower facility costs, easier scalability, and fewer technical staff without having to build a data center of their own.  Some data centers also offer their tenants technical services to help manage the individual company fiber networks, including initial installation, network upgrades, and routine maintenance.  

Managing the size

Hyperscale data centers are huge. These enormous centers include buildings that span hundreds of thousands of square feet with millions of servers operating together via a high-speed network.   Supporting the servers are thousands of feet of fiber optic cables and hundreds of thousands of optical connections, all of which must be effectively maintained.

Whether using your own company’s fiber technicians, or opting for a “remote hands” approach as part of a technical support package from a colocation facility provider, managing fiber network maintenance and ensuring the use of proper fiber cleaning methods is key to maintaining flawless connectivity.

High-count fiber cables

Rapidly changing fiber optic cable construction is also helping to improve bandwidth capacity and provide faster transmission speeds. Recent developments are enabling fiber optic cable manufacturers to pack thousands more single-mode optical fibers into a single cable. The result is ultrahigh-fiber count (UHFC) cables that can carry double or triple the data at faster speeds.  

Only a few years ago, an 864-fiber cable was considered a huge trunk. Today, typical fiber counts are 1,728, 3,456, and 5,184.  A next generation UHFC with 6,912 fibers was recently introduced into the industry, and a 7,776-fiber version is on the horizon.

But as UHFC trunks pack more fiber into a smaller footprint, they can be more challenging to maintain. The higher the fiber count, the more vulnerable the fiber connectors, also known as end faces, are to potential damage and contamination. 

Every single fiber connection must be kept perfectly clean to avoid potential network performance problems, such as insertion loss (weakened signal), back-reflection (the signal is diverted back to its source), or a complete network shut down. 

Start with a clean work area

The environment in which your fiber network sits can have a considerable impact on reliability. Although most data centers have processes in place to ensure cleanliness, it is important to check to make sure it is maintained regularly. 

Even if the space appears to be spotless, dust-based contamination can also originate from boxes, packaging, clothing fiber, dead skin, plant pollen, and vehicle emissions brought into the data center when entering. Dust particles can become embedded into the fiber end faces, resulting in pitted, scratched, or scarred surfaces. Fiber installation and maintenance technicians must take care to work in a clean area, as free of contaminants as possible.

Before starting fiber network cleaning, wipe down work surfaces and tools with a general purpose presaturated cleaning wipe to remove any contaminants. Don’t forget to also clean any inspection equipment. Connectors and ports on test equipment are mated regularly and are highly likely to become contaminated. Clean all equipment to stop any cross-contamination and ensure testing is accurate. Before proceeding, wash hands thoroughly to remove any dirt and oils that can compromise the cleaning process.

Meeting end face cleaning standards

The network end faces themselves must also be cleaned, installed, and maintained correctly. Therefore, it is important to have properly trained fiber technicians that understand how to clean effectively to future-proof each installation. 

One standard that helps technicians ensure end face cleanliness is the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) 61300-3-35. It includes a list of requirements for fiber optic connector end face quality. The IEC guideline highlights specific cleanliness grading criteria to measure pass or fail certification during the inspection of a fiber end face before connection. Fiber technicians should understand this standard and use it as a reference to ensure all their fiber end faces meet the IEC cleanliness standard. 

Use the right fiber cleaning tools

UHFC cables require considerable time for cleaning.  For example, a 6,912-fiber cable can take a technician up to four days to inspect, clean, and install. Therefore, it is important for fiber technicians to not only have the knowledge, but also the cleaning tools necessary to work quickly and efficiently. 

The very tools used to keep a fiber network clean can also be the cause of end face contamination. Foam swabs and paper-based wipes that some installers use to clean end faces can generate lint, dust, and debris. Residue-based contamination can also come from substances like isopropyl alcohol (IPA) when cleaning. Because IPA is hygroscopic, it absorbs moisture from the air and attracts airborne contamination, so, rather than cleaning the fiber, technicians are simply worsening the problem by using contaminated fluid. Fiber technicians should opt for cleaning fluids, cleaning sticks, and other cleaning tools engineered specifically for fiber cleaning. These specialty products will help ensure the network stays contaminant-free.

A look inside the fiber tech’s tool kit

UHFC cables and end faces require the very best cleaning equipment. The tools need to be robust enough to stand up to the high volume of usage, yet easy enough to deliver consistent, repeatable, and reliable results every time.  

Top of the list when it comes to filling a tech’s tool kit is specially engineered optical grade cleaning fluid. It should be fast-drying, static dissipative, and contained in hermetically sealed packaging to prevent the fluid from absorbing any airborne contaminants, such as moisture, dust, and exhaust particles. 

The cleaning fluid should also be nonflammable and nonhazardous. This makes it safer to store and use and easier to transport by ground or air. Because many data centers can be miles from a company’s headquarters, it’s important that fiber technicians can travel easily with their cleaning tools and fluids. If shipping fluids and tools to the facility, choose a fiber cleaning fluid that is nonflammable and can be shipped under nonhazardous and nonregulated policies to reduce shipping costs. Some fiber cleaning fluids come in travel-sized containers making it easy for installers to meet the TSA requirement of 3 ounces or less if they carry it in their bag when flying to a work site.

Wipes and tools

When cleaning with optical grade fluid, it’s important to also use lint-free optical grade wipes, single-use cleaning sticks, or a click-to-clean tool that can provide hundreds of cleans before it must be replaced.  Each type of cleaning tool is sized to the specific dimensions of the end face connectors used in the network. Using only engineered fiber cleaning sticks or click-to-clean tools helps ensure effective removal of oil and particulate contamination from the surface of the end faces without leaving residue or static charges behind.

Be ready to clean 

Companies should plan ahead to ensure they stock the correct type and sufficient quantity of end face cleaning products needed to complete a fiber network installation or maintenance. Fiber optic cleaning kits are an excellent way to guarantee cleaning fluids and tools are always at the ready.  A comprehensive kit should include high-purity, static-dissipating cleaning fluids; lint-free, optical-grade cleaning wipes; and multiple sizes of cleaning sticks and click-to-clean tools. 

In addition, always remember to refill fiber cleaning kits after each use. This helps ensure the kits are always well-stocked and ready for the next fiber cleaning project. 

Stay informed

The ever-increasing demand for more bandwidth and faster connectivity has spurred the rise of hyperscale data centers. Their complex network infrastructures and the highly intricate fiber systems used must perform to the highest degree in order to help support the delivery, speed, and reliability that data center end users require. 

The UHFC cables used in hyperscale data centers can be complicated and time-consuming to clean and install. But by investing in the proper preparation and tools, technicians can streamline their cleaning and installation operations. Engineered cleaning tools and fluids, developed specifically for fiber optic cleaning, help them work more quickly to optimize their time and cost-effectiveness. 

When choosing fiber optic cleaning fluids, tools, and methods, fiber technicians should seek the help of an experienced supplier that specializes in fiber optic cleaning. They can advise them on which tools to choose to help guarantee uninterrupted, seamless connectivity for their fiber networks.