Nowadays, media converter and network switch are both of vital importance in the Ethernet networks. But they are different in functions and applications. Then, how to choose media converter or switch for the network? What are the differences between these two devices? Media converter vs switch: definitions, transmission rates, installations, functions and selection guides are explained in this article.
Media converter is a very cost-effective and flexible device mainly used to convert the electrical signals in copper Unshielded Twisted Pair (UTP) network cabling into optical signals for fiber optic cabling. It enables you to join different signaling formats onto one well-functioning LAN. While the network switch plays a central role for wired network devices (computers, printers and PCs) on the network to communicate with each other. Network switch is usually wired to the router, allowing you to access the internet through the modem.
For fiber media converters, there are 100M/1000M/10G media converters currently available on the market. Among which the 100M/1000M media converters are more frequently applied and have become a cost-effective solution for home and SMB networks. Network switches can be divided into 1G, 10G, 25G, 100G and even 400G switches to meet varied data rate requirements. Take the large data center networks as an example, 1G/10G/25G switches are mainly applied for the access layer or considered as ToR switches. The 40G/100G/400G switches are used as core or spine switches.
Media converters are simple network hardware devices, which are equipped with fewer interfaces than network switches, thus the cabling and connectivity are less complex. They can be installed on a desktop or a chassis. Due to that media converters are plug-and-play devices, the installation method is very simple: just insert the corresponding cables into the copper and fiber ports on it, then connect the cables to the network devices at each end. The following video shows the installation processes of using media converters in the network.
Network switches can be used as a stand-alone unit in home or small office, or mounted to a rack for larger networks. Usually patch cables are plugged into the port on a network switch to link a computer or other network devices. In some high-density cabling environments, components like patch panels, fiber cassettes and cable managers are also used together to organize the cables. For managed network switches, a sort of configuration is also needed for running features like SNMP, VLAN, IGMP, etc.
Copper-to-fiber and fiber-to-fiber media converters are two typical media converter types. The former can enable connections of copper-based Ethernet equipment over a fiber optic link to extend links over greater distances, while the latter can offer connectivity between multimode and single-mode fiber, between dual fiber and single fiber, as well as conversion from standard wavelengths (1310nm, 1550nm) to WDM wavelengths.
Compared to media converters, network switches functions are much more complicated and are determined by the network operating systems (NOS). According to the network layer, they can be divided into Layer 2, Layer 3, and Layer 4 switches. Usually, the Layer 2 switches are the basic switches for transporting data and in performing error checking on each transmitted and received frame. Layer 3 and Layer 4 switches come with the routing functions to actively calculate the best way to send a packet to its destination and other advanced features, such as MLAG, STP, VXLAN and so on.
Fiber media converter and switch have something in common, both of the two devices can be applied to connect with copper and fiber optic cables. Then when to choose media converter or network switch in the Ethernet network? Some selection guidelines are elaborated in the following parts.
1. Fiber media converters are often applied for the circumstances where Ethernet cables cannot cover and fiber optical cables must be used for extending the transmission distance in a limited budget. They can be used for both the construction of LANs and trans metropolitan area networks, such as linking enterprise and campus backbone networks.
2. A network switch has multiple ports for different devices (such as PCs and printers) to communicate within the LAN. In other words, the network switches add more devices into the network to expand the network capacity. A network switch is a flexible network device that lets you add more wired devices to your network with ease. Also it can keep traffic between two devices from getting in the way of your other devices on the same network and allow you to control the network you want.
3. Media converters and network switches can also work together. For example, when the network switches are copper-based and they need to be connected with each other with a transmission distance of more than 100m, the media converters are needed to transmit the electrical signals to optical signals. The following figure shows a typical campus backbone network application with both media converters and network switches.
Figure 1: Media Converters Application in Campus Backbone Networks
Media converter vs switch, play different roles but can work together in the Ethernet network. One thing to remember is that fiber media converter is mainly for copper-to-fiber conversion to extend transmission distance, while network switch is for connecting devices together for data-sharing and communication.