Simple networks come with a lot of advantages. You don’t have to check compatibility from one component to the next. Everything can run at the same speed. You spend less money. It’s all nice, but there’s a catch. The simplest networks are not the most powerful.
When you need more than a basic one-router network, you might find yourself investing in major upgrades and technology like fiber optics. When you do, your network will necessarily grow more complicated, and to cope with that, you need hardware that can help very different kinds of technology work well together.
One type of technology that fills this role is the media converter. It’s an absolute necessity in many networks, and if you take a few minutes to learn all about media converters, you will have that much more knowledge and flexibility in your own networking endeavors.
Starting With the Basics
In simplest terms, a media converter is a device that changes communication from one form to another. It allows you to use different media types (hence the name) in the same network.
As an example, a media converter could allow an Ethernet device and a fiber optic device to communicate with each other.
There are plenty of different types of media converters that serve various purposes, and we’ll cover the most common in a bit.
One important thing to understand about media converters is that they fundamentally change the signal that passes through them. Media converters are not simple cable adapters. Signal processing and transformation takes place within the media converter, and this comes with a few consequences.
Most notably, they need a power source. Some converters are designed such that they can get power from the signal cables they utilize. Others need external power, but either way, media converters are not passive devices.
It’s also worth mentioning that media converters are specialized. As such, picking the appropriate converter for a specific task is important, especially if you want to keep costs down.
With all of that said, we can spend a few minutes going over common types of converters and how they are typically used.
Copper to Fiber
Copper-to-fiber converters are quite common. These converters typically work in both directions, and they can convert Ethernet signals to fiber optic signals or vice versa. This is extremely useful in any network that has both types of signals, and virtually all fiber optic networks have Ethernet devices attached at some point, meaning copper-to-fiber converters are pretty much essential in fiber optic networks.
Very commonly, these converters are needed to connect Ethernet devices to long-distance networks. It’s a common practice on campuses where Ethernet devices manage communications for buildings, but fiber optic lines interconnect those buildings.
Another common use is in high-end networks. Fiber optic lines form the backbone to provide very high connection rates. Meanwhile, Ethernet devices work in routing or for connecting servers and other endpoint devices. The copper-to-fiber converters allow Ethernet devices to tap into the high-speed fiber infrastructure.
Fiber to Fiber
Fiber-to-fiber converters are also essential in fiber optic networks. There are a lot of different types of fiber cables. They utilize different signal types (like single-mode and multimode) and a wide range of wavelengths.
None of these features are cross-compatible from one fiber cable to the next. If you need to combine fiber optic systems on different wavelengths or signal types, you’ll rely on specific fiber-to-fiber converters at each junction.
You can also get power over Ethernet (PoE) converters. These are like any other converters with a clear exception. They support PoE lines. The Ethernet cables carry enough power in them to run endpoint devices like cameras, routers, and other devices.
Because of the extra power running through the cables, you need PoE converters for PoE applications. Ultimately, the goal is typically to connect Ethernet and fiber optics, with the added bonus of PoE capacity in your converters.
Regardless of the specific signal types serviced by your converters, they come in two types: managed and unmanaged. These terms mean the same thing for most networking equipment, media converters included.
In other words, a managed media converter has software that allows a network administrator to carefully choose different operating parameters. You can control bandwidth through the converter, how traffic routes through them, security settings, and a whole lot more. The point is that managed converters directly control traffic that flows through them.
Meanwhile, unmanaged converters aren’t making smart choices. They blindly convert any data that flows through them and otherwise don’t impact traffic on your network. Other managed devices might dictate what traffic flows to the converter along with how and when, but the converter itself is not making those decisions.
Lastly, there are two common ways to mount or deploy media converters. You have chassis converters and standalone converters.
Chassis converters attach on server racks directly. They are designed to stick in one place and convert media for very dense networks. Mounting and unmounting these converters can be a bit of a chore (depending on the hardware and design), but that doesn’t matter because they aren’t designed to be rapidly moved and redeployed.
On the other hand, standalone converters are a lot more mobile and flexible. These converters can be installed at any point in the network, and they provide you with the freedom to adjust your network as you see fit. They are often designed for easier deployment, making them the ideal choice for ad hoc network adjustments.
And with that, we’ve gone through the essentials of media converters. You know what they are, how they work within a network, and how they are often utilized. If you use different signal types in your network, you know that the right media converters can change everything.
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