Media Converters:
An In-Depth Look At
How They Work and
How to Choose One

Media Converter
Media Converter

What is a media converter?

Media converters are used in every industry imaginable; they are a centerpiece of the enterprise networking toolkit. Network managers need data to travel at faster speeds over longer distances. To do this, they face the additional challenge of the connectivity of different cable types.

A media converter is a flexible and economical solution for implementing and optimizing fiber links in all types of networks. Most media converters operate as transceivers, and as such, they convert electrical signals into light waves.

When the distance between two network devices surpasses the maximum copper cabling distance, fiber optic connectivity is needed. Simply put: media converters enable two network devices with copper ports to be connected over an extended distance via fiber optic cabling.

Media converters:

• Are accessible as Physical Layer or Layer 2 switching devices

• Provides advanced switching functions such as rate-switching and Virtual Local Network (VLAN) tagging

• Convert wavelengths from Wavelength Division Multiplexing (WDM) applications

When media converters are installed in enterprise, government, data center, and telecom Fiber to the x (FTTX) networks, they are considered the “Swiss army knife” of networking.

Media Converter Fiber Optics

The Benefits of Using a Media Converter

Local Area Networks (LANs) get very complicated these days. They need to transmit data at higher speeds and to longer distances. Media converters offer a solution to these challenges by providing fiber when necessary and smoothly integrating new equipment into an existing cable infrastructure. Media converters are paramount when it comes to creating a reliable, cost-effective network. There are many benefits to the utilization of a media converter. Here is a list of the major ones:

• Speed: Media converters help get tasks done in the fastest way possible.

• More extensive networks: Media converters allow network managers to integrate new equipment into an existing cable infrastructure with increased quality and strength.

• Economical: As media converters integrate fiber and copper networks, there is no need to install a great deal of expensive new infrastructure.

• Less electromagnetic interference: With a media converter, the path between copper and fiber is gentle, which reduces electromagnetic interference considerably.

Media Converters can support sophisticated functions. They can:

• Support integrated switch technology for Ethernet networks at switching rates of 10/100 and 10/100/1000

• Support functions like VLAM, Quality of Service (QoS) prioritization, Port Access Control, and Bandwidth Control

• Facilitate new data, voice, and video deployment to users

• Reduce capital equipment expenditures (CAPEX) by preserving legacy equipment by enabling connectivity between existing servers, switches, routers, and hubs—or by allowing Wave Division Multiplexing (WDM) through wavelength conversion

• Reduce network operating expenditures (OPEX) by providing remote network configuration and troubleshooting in distant locations where personnel is limited

Media Converter Benefits

Types of Media Converters

Because there are various reasons it is not possible to directly connect two devices or LANs (such as dissimilar operation types, speeds, media types, or modes), a media converter is essential and must be designed to meet these various needs. Therefore, there are a large variety of types of media converters to choose from. To enable you to select the right kind of media converter for your network, we will discuss the different types of media converters available on the market:

  • Standard Media Converters: This type of media converter is the simplest and is designed without a web interface. Standard media converters are perfect for start-ups or small companies that need simple devices.
  • PoE Media Converters: Power over Ethernet (PoE) media converters optimize using the Ethernet standard and supply power and data over a single cable. This media converter is typically used to power security cameras, IP phones, and wireless access points.
  • Enterprise Media Converters: These media converters connect different cables or media. These connectors allow enterprise networks to maximize the value of their existing network by 1) extending their distance, 2) extending the reach between two similar devices, or 3) extend the life of their non-fiber-based equipment. Enterprise media converters come in two sizes: standard and mini.
  • Industrial Media Converters: This type of media converter features a rugged enclosure rated to an ingress protection (IP) scale. This type of construction protects the device from extreme temperatures, dirt, dust, moisture, etc. Hardened media converters connect different cable and media types (typically copper-to-fiber) in outdoor environments. They are also well suited for industrial applications that use fiber cables and have electromagnetic interference (EMI) noise challenges.
  • Carrier Ethernet Media Converters; Also known as CE media converters, these converters are mostly used to extend Ethernet to Wide Area Networks (WANs). CE media converters extend network connections or bridge different network types. The most recent CE media converter standard is called CE 2.
  • Miniature (Mini) Media Converters: Many times, network managers find it hard to add network services to applications like security cameras, tight areas, or areas where cabling does not exist. A mini media converter is the solution to this problem. These media converters are a simple conversion device that makes a connection between copper and fiber cables. Mini-media converters are especially helpful in tight areas with a small footprint. They are easy to install; just plug one in and walk away.

Media Converters Come in Different Forms

Media converters come in three different styles:

  • Chassis: Chassis-based media converters are designed for enterprise networks that use many cables—applications like data converters, LAN wiring closets, and switching rooms. These areas require a mix and match approach when dealing with different types of cables and networks. Chassis-based media converters are designed to support this type of high-density conversion.Media Converter Chassis
  • Slide-in Media Converter Cards: This form of media converter adds additional flexibility (mix and match) for high-density conversion. These media converters slide into the chassis and draw power from the backbone of the chassis. Slide-in media converters provide various ingress and egress ports to meet the needs of an enterprise network.
  • Standalone Media Converters: Standalone media converters are compact, easy to install, and save space and money. This form of media converter is fit for applications in environments with little space, such as telecommunication cabinets, distribution boxes, etc.

Unmanaged vs. Managed Media Converters

Another aspect to consider when choosing a media converter is whether it is unmanaged or managed. Here is a snapshot of each kind:

  • Unmanaged Media Converters: This type of media converter enables simple communication between two systems. These devices have no monitoring or fault detection functions and cannot set up network configuration. Unmanaged media converters are plug-and-play and can be used for start-ups, small businesses, or DIY fiber network cable installations.
  • Managed Media Converters: These advanced media converters have features such as network monitoring, remote configuration, and fault detection. These devices employ Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) and support security protocols such as Secure Shell (SSH), Telnet, and Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS). Additional hardware is required to enable SNMPv1, SNMPv2c, or SNMPv3 management.

Managed vs. Unmanaged Media Converters

Media Converter Modes

There is another way that media converters distinguish themselves—one the basis of transmission.

  • Single-Mode Media Converters: This media converter mode is also known as a transverse mode. They transmit light signals in only one direction. Single-mode media converters have low attenuation because they have core diameters that range from 9 microns to 10.5 microns.
  • Multi-Mode Media Converters: In contrast to single-mode media converters, these media converters transmit signals in two or more directions. Multi-mode media converters have high light dispersion and authentication rates due to core diameters that range in the neighborhood of 50 to 62.5 microns.

Media Converter Single Mode vs. Multimode

Types of Conversion

Media converters employ one of these two major conversion categories:

  • Copper-to-Copper Media Converters: These media converters can perform many functions; however, they are mainly used as an interface from one network standard to another. These devices can also repeat a signal, which adds latency and extends the data transmission distance another 100 meters.
  • Copper-to-Fiber Media Converters: These Ethernet copper-to-fiber media converters support the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers (IEEE) 802.3 standards. They change the electrical pulses of a copper data network into light pulses using fiber optics. They are typically used to extend networks beyond the 100-meter distance limit of traditional Unshielded Twisted Pairs (UTP) Ethernet cabling. A copper-to-fiber media converter provides connectivity to Ethernet, Fast Ethernet, Gigabit, and 10 Gigabit Ethernet devices.
  • Fiber-to-Fiber Media Converters: These media converters support the conversion of one wavelength to another. Fiber-to-fiber media converters can be used in applications such as Ethernet and Time-Division Multiplexing (TDM).

Media Converter Protocols

Ethernet is used to connect various devices and is by far the most widely used LAN technology. The most common Ethernet system is Ethernet (10Mb) which uses twisted pair or fiber optic l cabling for connectivity and transmits data at 10 Megabits per second (Mbps).

Here are other media converter protocols you need to know about:

  • Ethernet (10Mb): This set of networking technologies are primarily used in LANs, WANs, and metropolitan area networks (MANs). Ethernet (10 Mb) is defined by the IEEE 802.3 standards and was initially designed to run over coaxial cables, but now only twisted pair or fiber optic cables are used.
  • Fast Ethernet (100Mb): Fast Ethernet (IEEE 802.3u) has a maximum data rate of 100 Mbps and is an extension of the switched Ethernet standard. If this protocol is run over fiber cable, it is often referred to as 100Base-X. This technology operates over optical fiber or UTP copper cabling. There are numerous Fast Ethernet standards. Fast Ethernet standards for fiber are 100Base-LX10, 100Base-BX10, and 100Base-FX. The standards for copper are 100Base-T4, 100Base-TX, 100Base-T1, and 100Base-VG.
  • Gigabit Ethernet (1000Mb): This protocol is referred to as 1 GigE or GbE and delivers one Gigabit per second (Gbps). Gigabit Ethernet is the backbone of the enterprise network. In this standard, each cable supports two devices (this is called point-to-point configuration). At present, there are five physical standards for Gigabit Ethernet. The three major standards are as follows: 1) 1000Base-LX (or optical fiber), 1000Base-T (for twisted pair cable), and 1000Base-CX (for UTP cable).
  • 10Base: This protocol is also referred to as 10 Gigabit Ethernet, 10GveE, or 10GBase. It transmits data at the rate of 10 Gbps. This Ethernet standard defines full-duplex point-to-point links, as opposed to half-duplex or hubs operations. At present, there are numerous standards for single-mode fibers, multi-mode fiber optical cables, twin axial, higher UTP copper cables, and Category 6 (CAT6) cables.

Network Protocols Supported by Media Converters

In addition to the Ethernet protocols discussed above, media converter support the following Network Protocols:

  • 10G OTN
  • T1 /E1 and T3 / DS3>
  • SONET (OC-3, OC-12, OC-48, and OC-96)
  • Fibre Channel
  • Serial RS-232 / 422 / 530
  • Protocol Transparent, supporting data rates us to 11.32Gbps

Fiber Cable and Connector Types Supported by Media Converters

  • SFP. SFP+, and Standard Wavelength Transceivers
  • XFP CWDM Transceivers
  • ST, SC, LC, and Mt-RJ Connectors
  • Single-mode and Multi-mode Fiber
  • Dual and Single Fiber

Copper Cable and Connector Types Supported by Media Convertors

  • Copper RJ-45
  • BVC and Mini-BNC
  • Coax
  • UTP Category 4, 5, and 6

What is the difference between a media converter and a switch?

Techopedia defines a switch as follows:

A switch, in the context of networking, is a high-speed device that receives incoming data packets and redirects them to their destination on a local area network (LAN).

A LAN switch operates at the data link layer (Layer 2) or the network layer of the OSI Model, and, as such, it can support all types of packet protocols. The Layer 2 switch is also sometimes called a bridge: its function is to send frames containing data packets between nodes or segments of a network.

Essentially, switches are the traffic cops of a simple local area network. Switching establishes the trajectory for the frames as the data units and how the data moves from one area of a network to another.

Media converters are often switches, and switches are often media converters—and both devices are continually described in terms of Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) layers.

So, just what is going on?

These waters get murky. Most of the confusion is due to the evolution of the devices themselves. OSI Layer 1 media converters have evolved to meet basic switch functions (Layer 2)—while switches are rapidly moving toward Layer 3 and Layer 4, areas that were formerly only handled by routers.

The upshot is that media converters and switches have a lot in common. So, how do you choose?

  • Speed: There are currently 100M/1000M/10G media converters on the market. Network switches are available in 1G/10G/25G/100G/400G models.
  • Installation: Media converters are simple plug-and-play devices that have fewer interfaces than network switches. Managed switches need some configuration for features such as SNMP, VLAN, Internet Group Management Protocol (IGMP), etc.
  • Function: Network switch functions are considerably more complicated than those of a media converter. Layer 3 and Layer 4 switches come with routing functions and other advanced features such as Multi Chassis Link Aggregation (MLAG), Spanning Tree Protocol (STP), Virtual Extensible LAN (VXLAN), etc.

Fiber media converters are used when existing Ethernet cables are not adequate to cover a transmission distance, and budgetary limits are at play. They can also be used for the construction of LANs and MANs.

With network switches, you can add more wired devices to the network. Also, switches keep the traffic between two devices from interfering with other devices on the network.

One last word on this: A fiber media converter is primarily for copper-to-fiber conversion to extend transmission length, while switches are most often used to connect network devices for data-sharing and communication.

What is the difference between a media converter and an Ethernet extender?

With the push for more speed over longer distances and the additional challenges of interconnecting different cable types, choosing the best solution is confusing. Both media converters and Ethernet extenders can be a feasible solution as they both support a wide array of protocols, data rates, and media types that comfortably integrate into a variety of network infrastructures.

As previously stated, media converters are economical devices mainly used for copper-to-fiber or fiber-to-fiber connections to extend transmission distances and improve transmission quality. Fiber media converters add fiber cabling to legacy copper cabling systems, extending their lifespans; these media converters also provide the ability to upgrade networks and add new devices.

Ethernet extenders (also called network extenders or LAN extenders) convert Digital Simulation Language (DSL) and return signals to Ethernet, which results in the extension of a 10/100/1000 Ethernet connection.

These devices use single twisted pair (CAT5e/6/7) copper wiring or coaxial cabling and are mainly used in:

  • Alarm circuits
  • T1/E1 circuits
  • RS-232, RS-422, RS-485 telecommunication standards
  • Closed Circuit Television (CCTV)
  • Community Antenna Television (CATV)

Here are some comparisons of media converters and Ethernet extenders to help you choose which device is best for you:

  • Speed: Media converters can support 10/100/1000Mbps and 10Gbps. Extenders support speeds of 10/100/1000Mbps.
  • Distance: Media converters support distances up to 160 km (approximately 99 miles). Ethernet extenders allow 10/100Base-TX Ethernet data with High-Speed Digital Subscriber Lines (SHDSL) to reach 20 km (about 12 miles)—or allows 10/100/1000Base-T Ethernet using Very High Bit Rate Digital Subscriber Lines (VDSL) to reach up to 3 km (approximately 1.8 miles).
  • Both devices can be used to extend a LAN using legacy cabling. Media converters perform photoelectric conversion using fiber cables. An Ethernet extender deals with electrical signals together with Digital
  • Subscriber Lines (DSL). In the long run, media converters have the best performance quality for long-range network extension—the catch here is that they can be expensive compared to an Ethernet extender.


Media Converter Use Cases

Media converters are used in every industry and sector.

  • Data Centers
  • Education
  • Entertainment
  • Finance
  • Government
  • Healthcare
  • Manufacturing
  • Telecommunications
  • Transportation
  • Utilities

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