EtherFast is fast, but its 16 ports suit only small offices

Every intranet user longs for Fast Ethernet. And who can blame them? At 10 times the
standard speed, a 100-megabit/sec Fast Ethernet hub and cards will make even the most
sprawling graphics project leap onto your display almost as fast as if it were on your
hard drive.


Some early Fast Ethernet adopters have complained the only leaping going on was money
leaping out of their budgets. But the EtherFast series is different. Linksys, long a
low-price network equipment provider, is targeting the series to workplaces small and
large.


The three EtherFast lines--network interface cards, 10/100-megabit/sec switches and
hubs--support 10Base-T and 100Base-TX, detecting speed and shifting gears. This is no
small thing when some NICs still require that a software utility be running to make the
shift.


I tested the EtherFast 10/100 LAN Cards, four-port switch and four-port 100Base-TX
stackable hub. The network interface cards ran as fast as Intel Corp. and 3Com Corp.
counterparts, but the NICs work only in PCI slots on Pentium plug-and-play motherboards.


If you still have ISA or MCA buses, you're out of luck. EtherFast gets its speed from
the card's onboard logic that frees it from needing any clock ticks from the PC's
processor. On low-end Pentium systems, this gives network performance a real kick.
Ethernet and token-ring networks eat its dust.


Priced little higher than ordinary Ethernet boards, EtherFast sends data flying along
10Base-T networks--provided they have two-pair unshielded twisted-pair or one-pair
shielded twisted-pair cabling.


Unlike the situation with 100Base-T, there's no guarantee that your old 10Base-T wiring
can handle the hotter 100Base-TX load. In the lab, however, old-fashioned, one-pair
10Base-T worked just fine.


Before investing in Fast Ethernet, make certain that your wiring can handle the
hyperfast traffic. You also should make sure you're not mixing network technologies.


Hewlett-Packard Co.'s 100VG-AnyLAN, for example, is great for high-bandwidth video and
other demanding data streams, but it won't interoperate with EtherFast or any other Fast
Ethernet technology.


The real fly in a LAN administrator's soup is technical support. When I encountered a
fatal Microsoft Windows 95 conflict with an EtherFast NIC, I was told that the problem
must be in the operating system and that I should call Microsoft.


I did solve the conflict, but the effect was to make me wary of recommending EtherFast
to shops that lack experienced hardware technicians.


The EtherFast hubs, however, are real plug-and-play network devices. In place, hub and
cards ran flawlessly. But if you don't support Simple Network Management Protocol on the
hubs, flawless isn't good enough.


Without SNMP, the hubs simply can't be managed remotely. The higher-end EtherFast
models, which are also switches, fortunately come with a simple SNMP switch management
program.


Every RJ-45 port can click back and forth between these connections. Note, however,
that there is no support for 10Base-2.


If you need to switch from 10-megabit/sec Ethernet on ThinNet coaxial cable to 10Base-T
on twisted-pair, look for another product line.


EtherFast products are affordable and work well, but the size limits of the hubs and
switches--16 ports maximum per unit--suit them only for small offices or workgroups.


Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols is a computer journalist in Lanham, Md.


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