Both media converters and network switches are critical in Ethernet today, but media converters and switches are different in function and application. So, how do you choose a media converter or switch for your network? What’s the difference between these two devices? This article explains definitions, transfer rates, installation, features, and selection guidelines. Let’s take a look.
What’s the difference between a media converter and a switch?
A media converter is a very cost-effective and flexible device primarily used to convert electrical signals in copper Unshielded Twisted Pair (UTP) network cabling to optical signals for fiber optic cabling. It enables you to incorporate different signaling formats into a well-functioning LAN. Network switches play a central role in how wired network devices (computers, printers, and PCs) on the network communicate with each other. A network switch is usually connected to a router and allows you to access the internet through a modem.
For media converters, there are currently 100M/1000M/10G fiber media converters on the market. Among them, 100M/1000M media converters are widely used and have become cost-effective solutions for home and SMB networks. Network switches can be divided into 1G, 10G, 25G, 100G, and even 400G switches to meet different data rate requirements. Taking a large data center network as an example, 1G/10G/25G switches are mainly used in the access layer or are regarded as ToR switches. 40G/100G/400G switches are used as core or backbone switches.
Fiber media converters are simple network hardware devices with fewer interfaces than network switches, so cabling and connections are less complicated. They can be mounted on a desktop or a chassis. Since the media converter is a plug-and-play device, installation is very simple: just plug the appropriate cables into the copper and fiber ports on it, then connect the cables to the network devices on both ends.
A network switch can be used as a stand-alone unit in a small office or home or can be rack-mounted for larger networks. Jumpers are usually inserted into ports on network switches to connect computers or other network devices. In some high-density cabling environments, components such as patch panels, fiber optic boxes, and cable managers are also used together to organize cables. For managed network switches, a configuration is also required to run SNMP, VLAN, IGMP, and more.
Fiber-to-fiber and Copper-to-fiber media converters are two typical types of media converters. The copper-to-fiber media converter can connect copper-based Ethernet devices over fiber-optic links to extend the link over greater distances, while the fiber-to-fiber can provide connectivity between multimode and single-mode fibers, between dual-fiber and single-fiber, and Convert from standard wavelengths (1310nm, 1550nm) to WDM wavelengths.
Compared with media converters, the functions of network switches are much more complex and determined by the network operating system (NOS). The network layer can be divided into Layer 2, Layer 3, and Layer 4 switches. Typically, a Layer 2 switch is the basic switch used to transmit data and error-check every frame sent and received. Layer 3 and Layer 4 switches have routing capabilities that actively calculate the best way to send packets to their destination, as well as other advanced features such as MLAG, STP, VXLAN, and more.
When to choose a media converter or a switch?
Fiber media converters and switches have a few things in common, and both devices can be used to connect copper and fiber optic cables. So when do you choose a media converter or a network switch in an Ethernet network? The following text detail some selection guidelines.
1. Media converters are often used in situations that cannot be covered by Ethernet cables, and fiber optic cables must be used to extend the transmission distance within a limited budget. They can be used in the construction of local area networks and cross-metropolitan area networks, such as connecting enterprise and campus backbone networks.
2. A switch has multiple ports for different devices (such as PCs and printers) to communicate within the local area network. In other words, network switches add more devices to the network to expand network capacity. A network switch is a flexible network device that allows you to easily add more wired devices to your network. It also prevents traffic between two devices from interfering with other devices on the same network and allows you to control the network you want.
4. Fiber media converters and switches can also work together. For example, when the network switches are copper wires and need to be connected to each other and the transmission distance exceeds 100m, a media converter is required to convert electrical signals into optical signals. The figure below shows a typical campus backbone network application with both media converters and network switches.
Media converters and switches play different roles but can work together in Ethernet. One thing to keep in mind is that fiber optic media converters are primarily used for copper-to-fiber conversion to extend transmission distances, while network switches are used to connect devices together for data sharing and communication.