Server NICS go Gigabit

Server Nics go Gigabit<@VM>Bandwidth booms via any of 11 Gigabit Ethernet NICs

To channel a tidal wave of data, agency managers turn to Gigabit Ethernet

By John H. Mayer

Special to GCN

Call it the data deluge.

Everywhere you look, the amount of data people transmit across their networks is proliferating.

Medical personnel use new scanning systems to transmit complex images across a LAN; scientists run multifaceted modeling programs to create graphics files that run to terabyte size; brochure, newsletter and document publishers send entire pages with mixed text and graphics to their printers, and agency analysts track demographic trends to assemble massive data warehouses and ship large slices of data to colleagues or users.

Add the widespread use of the Internet and groupware communications packages, and it is easy to see how these developments have rewritten bandwidth requirements across the network infrastructure.

Network managers at government agencies, like their industry counterparts, are attempting to cope with this flood of data by moving to faster networking technologies. But even those networks that moved to Fiber Distributed Data Interface, Fast Ethernet or asynchronous transfer mode architectures on the backbone'once considered adequate protection against bandwidth creep'are now drowning in data, particularly as desktop systems migrate to 100-Mbps links.

Information technology managers building server-to-server and server-to-workgroup links increasingly turn to Gigabit Ethernet technology as the best solution to this bandwidth crunch.

The argument for Gigabit Ethernet is difficult to beat. It is now more cost-effective than any other high-speed LAN technology on the market. It is fully compatible with a vast installed base of more than 100 million Ethernet nodes. Few IT managers can ignore a technology that's faster, cheaper and easier to install than the alternatives.

Gigabit Ethernet network interface cards have been on the market since late 1996, but they've only recently started to take off. A recently approved standard for Gigabit Ethernet over traditional copper wiring promises to give the market an additional boost.

What should you look for in a Gigabit Ethernet NIC? To a large extent, of course, it depends on your applications and network infrastructure. But the following attributes are likely to be important in any circumstances.

Performance. Sure, the latest Gigabit Ethernet NICs can process data in a hurry. But all are not created equal.

Look for the quality and speed of the on-board processor to get a handle on its ability to offload tasks from the server CPU. By offloading TCP/IP checksum calculations and coalescing interrupts, an on-board processor can have a significant impact on performance. Software driver integration can also play a big role in a NIC's ability to process large amounts of network data.

Some built-in features help keep the network running and, in the process, push up your overall network performance numbers. Integrated failover capability, for instance, will transfer functions from one NIC to another on the server if something goes wrong.

And load-balancing capabilities can help eliminate server network bottlenecks by distributing traffic over multiple links. Some NICs also add a Traffic Prioritization feature to ensure the delivery of time-sensitive and mission-critical traffic.

On a more basic level, take a look at the bus architecture of the NIC. While PCI is the industry-accepted standard for add-in boards, keep in mind it comes in more than one flavor. Boards can come in both 32- and 64-bit architectures running at 33 MHz or 66 MHz. Although 32-bit boards will work fine with today's systems, you will pay a severe performance penalty if you plan to move to a server capable of taking advantage of a 64-bit data path any time soon.

Compatibility and interoperability. Any Gigabit Ethernet NIC worth its salt will support the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' Gigabit Ethernet Standard 802.3z. Doing so ensures that your new board will easily integrate with existing Ethernet and Fast Ethernet LANs.

Operating system support is less consistent. Some boards offer driver support for every platform under the sun, including Mac OS and Linux. Others focus on the more popular platforms such as Microsoft Windows NT, the standard Unix variants and perhaps Novell NetWare. When you select a NIC, make sure it not only supports your current OS, but any you plan to add in the near future.

Setup and installation. Often overlooked, one of the most important criteria for a NIC is how easy it is to set up. Determine how fast the software for the NIC installs and make sure to check out how it performs in your own operating environment.

Some install programs work very efficiently in NT but take forever in NetWare or Unix. Another factor to look at is how readily you can set up more complex features such as failover or load balancing. Some software will automatically detect the network configuration, make the link to the network switch and define link parameters.

Administrative support. Once you have the NIC installed, integrated management capabilities can go a long way toward sampling administration tasks and ultimately reducing costs. NICs have used management technologies such as Simple Network Management Protocol for years, but newer products add support for emerging standards such as the Desktop Management Interface, which ensures compatibility with leading desktop PC management applications. Remote activation features, which allow network managers to remotely power up PCs for after-hours updates, are also helpful.

Security. With multiple virtual LAN support, a server NIC can ensure flexible and secure network configuration in a standards-based environment. Although some vendors use VLAN capabilities with proprietary tags, the industry has accepted IEEE 802.1Q tags as the VLAN standard.

It's in the cards
'Remember that built-in failover can make sure that servers with multiple NICs will maintain performance when a single card fails.
'Use load balancing to ensure maximum throughput on the network when many cards are in use.
'Look for server NICs that offer extensive management capabilities, including support for such emerging standards as the Desktop Management Interface.
'Check that your NIC supports the IEEE's 802.1Q tags as the standard for VLANs to maximize network security.
'Consider the cost advantages of a new breed of Gigabit Ethernet NICs that can transmit data at gigabit speeds over Category 5 copper cabling.

Alteon Networks' AceNIC is a host-optimized adapter that supports full-duplex Gigabit Ethernet connectivity and has 2-Gbps aggregate bandwidth. It is priced at $1,095.

Interconnects. The first Gigabit Ethernet standard was designed around the use of fiber-optic cabling to move data at gigabit speeds. So all Gigabit Ethernet NICs today feature fiber-optic connectors. Over the past several years, however, the IEEE has developed a new standard that allows network managers to run Gigabit Ethernet signals over conventional Category 5 copper cabling. With more than 70 percent of all networks still running on Category 5 wire, the ability to run Gigabit Ethernet over copper could make a difference for many agencies.

Consultants note that, although the cost of fiber-optic cabling has dropped significantly, the installation of new cable is still far and away the single most expensive item in any network upgrade. Accordingly, any system that lets IT managers take advantage of an existing cable infrastructure will give tremendous cost savings.

Moreover, the new gigabit copper standard uses the same low, 125-MHz signal rate employed in Fast Ethernet equipment. That will help drive down the cost of Gigabit Ethernet copper transceivers and give network managers the advantage of software development work already in place for Fast Ethernet, including the software drivers for major operating systems.

Analysts predict that the cost of NICs for Gigabit Ethernet over copper will run at half the cost of comparable fiber products.

The Gigabit Ethernet-over-copper standard is initially limited to distances of 100 meters on Category 5 cabling, so early applications will focus on high-speed server-to-server links.

But over the long term, the technology will support server-to-desktop links. Vendors have recently announced their first products, and copper-based Gigabit Ethernet NICs are expected to hit the market in volume later this year. Depending on your existing network cable infrastructure, it may be worth your while to wait.

John H. Mayer writes about information technology from Belmont, Mass.

Vendor Product Bus interface TCP/IP checksum offloading 802.1Q VLAN tagging Load-balancingDriver support Comments Price
Alteon Networks Inc. San Jose, Calif. 408-360-5500 AceNIC 32/64-bit PCI Yes Yes No Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 and 5.0, SunSoft Solaris 2.5.1 and higher, Novell Netware 4.10 and 4.11, Mac OS, Linux
Jumbo frame support boosts data transfer, reduces server overhead $1,095
Compaq Computer Corp. Houston 888-202-4682 NC6134 32/64-bit PCI Yes No Yes NT 3.51 and 4.0, SCO Unixware 7.x and 2.x, Open Server 5.x, NetWare 3.12, 4.1and 5.x Supports PCI hot-plug, fault- tolerance technologies, SNMP, DMI 2.0 and Web Enterprise Management $608 GSA
Hewlett Packard Co. Palo Alto, Calif. 800-752-0900 HP 1000BaseSX Gigabit Ethernet Adapter 32/64-bit PCI HSC Yes No Yes HP-UX Supports SNMP $2,100
IBM Corp. Armonk, N.Y. 800-426-4968 Netfinity Gigabit Ethernet SX Adapter 32/64-bit PCI Yes Yes Yes NT 3.51 and 4.0, NetWare 3.11, 3.12, 4.1x and 5.0 server, SCO Unixware 2.x, OS/2 Warp Connect, OS/2 2.11 Supports PCI hot-plug, fault- tolerance technologies $895
Intel Corp. Santa Clara, Calif. 800-538-3373 Intel PRO Gigabit Server Adapter 32/64-bit PCI Yes Yes Yes NT 4.0, IntranetWare, SCO Unixware 7, MS-DOS ODI client PROSet diagnostics tool supports Wired for Management,
SNMP and DMI 2.0; supports PCI hot-plug and fault-tolerance failover technologies
ODS Networks Inc. Richardson, Texas 972-234-6400 Jackrabbit 2.0 32-bit PCI Yes No No NT 4.0, SGI Irix, Solaris, AIX Is tightly integrated with ODS LanBlazer 7000 switch $3,995
Packet Engines Inc. Spokane, Wash. 509-777-7000 G-NIC II 32/64-bit PCI Yes Yes Yes NT 4.0, Solaris 2.6, Linux, Mac OS, IntranetWare 3.12 and 4.11, Digital Unix 4.0 FreeBSD, Irix Has second-generation-design dual processors; large buffers maximize throughput $995
Phobos Corp. Salt Lake City 801-474-9200 P1000 32/64-bit PCI Yes No Yes NT 4.0, Solaris, NetWare, Irix, HP-UX, Linux Has port aggregation software, EtherChannel; is compatible with Cisco failover and port redundancy $1,695
SGI Mountain View, Calif. 650-960-1980 SGI Gigabit Ethernet Adapter 64-bit PCI Yes Yes Yes Irix Supports SGI servers; features ASIC with dual RISC processors $2,100
Sun Microsystems Inc. Palo Alto, Calif. 800-555-9786 GigabitEthernet 2.0 Adapters 32/64-bit PCI, 32/64-bit Sbus Yes No Yes Solaris 2.5.1 and higher Supports Sun servers; has dynamic reconfiguration $2,095 PCI;
$2,295 Sbus
3Com Corp. Santa Clara, Calif. 408-326-5000 Gigabit EtherLink Server NIC 32/64-bit PCI Yes Yes Yes NT 4.0, Linux, NetWare 4.x and 5.0, SCO Unixware 7 DynamicAccess software for high availability and load- balancing $899


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