Popularity of media converters is growing

Got media converters? If so, you are probably one of the 30 or so manufacturers that may have considered selling out, buying your competition, or building a better media converter. Or you`re an end-user who relies on them to expand your local area networks (lans), and you have been kicking the proverbial tires of new and improved media converters that will allow you to cruise into upgrades efficiently and inexpensively.

Jun 1st, 1999

Mark A. DeSorbo

Got media converters? If so, you are probably one of the 30 or so manufacturers that may have considered selling out, buying your competition, or building a better media converter. Or you`re an end-user who relies on them to expand your local area networks (lans), and you have been kicking the proverbial tires of new and improved media converters that will allow you to cruise into upgrades efficiently and inexpensively.

Whatever the case may be, the increasingly popular component is becoming an important part of the premises-cabling industry. Anne Murphy, vice president of marketing at lancast Inc., a media-converter manufacturer in Nashua, NH, likens trends in media conversion to the evolution that occurred in the Ethernet hub market during the early 1990s. Much like the first Ethernet hubs, media converters were "dumb physical-layer devices."

"Just as the increased port density of chassis-based hubs fueled the demand for smart hubs, chassis-based media converters with redundancy are increasingly becoming critical traffic convergence points in the network," Murphy says. "Our customers want to actively troubleshoot and control these devices from their management consoles. Primitive, alarm-based monitoring and hard downtime are not acceptable in today`s enterprise."

Driving the media-converter market is the demand of greater bandwidth and the mixing of media types that are migrating to the desktop, such as copper-to-fiber, multimode-to-singlemode, and even coaxial-to-unshielded twisted-pair cable.

"Media converters are a great way to work with fiber and upgrade a network inexpensively. It helps the fiber-cable as well as the copper-cable market," says Stephen Montgomery, president of ElectroniCast Corp., a research and consulting firm based in San Mateo, CA. "Media converters are creating lan extensions."

Popularity has sparked some changes to the big picture. One of the most significant developments is the March acquisition of lanart Corp. (Needham, MA) by Communications Systems Inc. (csi), the parent company of Transition Networks (Minneapolis, MN). Another advancement is lancast`s introduction of its Intelligent Media Converter 7500 and NetBeacon, Internet-based management software for media conversion.

"The acquisition of lanart expands Transition`s product line, most notably the network interface cards," Montgomery says. "It adds to their credibility. csi was already a supplier to Transition`s customers, and it just makes sense for them to acquire lanart to expand their product line."

Steve Stange, Transition`s senior product manager, says the main attraction to acquire lanart was its application-specific integrated-circuit (asic) technology, which allows for cost- effective fiber deployment and a solution to auto-negotiation problems that sometimes exist in Ethernet networks. Regarded as a pioneer in network connectivity, lanart has introduced the industry`s first 10/100-TX-to-10/100-SX media converter, which incorporates asic technology.

According to Stange, the asic technology will significantly enhance Transition`s product line in its efforts to gain a greater market share. "Last year, the company grew by 40%," Stange adds. "With the addition of lanart, we will be more competitive and should eventually have 25% of the media-conversion market."

The acquisition has yielded two new media converters for Transition: a redundant tx/fx for Fast Ethernet that converts copper to fiber and a copper-to-fiber converter for T1 (1.554-megabit-per-second) and E1 (2.048-Mbit/sec) networks. Transition also introduced enhanced management software that identifies the media-converter type, the slot it occupies, the chassis unit power status, and the redundant power status.

Expanding the product line is just what lancast has done to preserve its market share. Last April, the company introduced the 7500 media converter and NetBeacon management software that will end what Murphy calls "blob management," or the "blinking light on box" that alerts network managers of media-conversion problems (see Premier Products, page 145).

The 7500 converter and NetBeacon software eliminate the "black hole" in the managed enterprise, Murphy says. "The market says we can`t afford to have a dumb converter out there. The ability to know there is a fire out there is one thing, but the ability to prevent it is another," she adds.

Although companies like lancast strive to improve product lines, most companies will go the merger-acquisition route as a means of delving into the media-conversion market, Montgomery says. He notes that last year the market value for media converters was about $120 million, generated by 30 companies that compete globally. For many of these companies, the component is not the only product they manufacture.

So what does the future hold? Montgomery believes the media-converter market will not support 30 manufacturers. "Five or six of those companies represent well over 80% of the market," he says. "First-tier companies, like Transition, lanart, Digi International, lancast, Canary, Allied Telesyn, imc Networks, and others, will control the majority of the market share. Other companies might just stop selling their media converters or have the line picked up by somebody else."

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