Somewhat of a forgotten linchpin for securing a well managed and efficient network, the network interface card has resurfaced. It is once again coming under the microscope as more and more vendors realise how much potential the right NIC has in improving the overall functionality of an organisation's network. Richard Noone talks to some of the major vendors to get the latest on network interface cards.
Every desktop PC connected to a network has got one, some servers have many, but to most users network interface cards remain largely out of sight and out of mind. That is, until now. So are all NICs essentially the same? And if not, what differentiates the various vendors besides the bottom line?
Perhaps the old adage "you're only as strong as your weakest link" could be amended "to you're only as fast as your slowest NIC". But then again, according to Andy Hurt, SME business development director for 3Com, speed isn't everything with a NIC.
"A NIC isn't a NIC isn't a NIC. Solutions have to be cost effective; in terms of per- formance faster isn't necessarily better," he said.
Instead NICs are becoming increas-ingly task specific in the features they offer. Hurt says "these days it's all about 'intelligent' NICs".
Things like prioritisation and quality of traffic are factors which influence the "class or service" a network can provide. And NICs are a very important part or component of that equation claims Hurt.
Hurt sees there being a trade-off between the cost of ownership and per- formance. While Gigabit Ethernets are gaining wider usage, he questions the necessity of putting a 1000Mbps NIC on the edge of a network just because it's the latest technology - whereas with a server this bandwidth may be essential.
"Customers are driven by price on edge NICs but in bigger networks considerations such as 'where do I need the bandwidth?' determine which adapters are used in the server," said Hurt.
"We know 3Com isn't ever going to be the cheapest, and we don't want it to be," says Hurt. "We take time to tell resellers why certain features are important, why the NIC costs as much as it does and why corporates need a certain feature for their particular network."
Other vendors have been aggressively pricing NICs in the hope of gaining market share. Philip Cronon, channel sales manager for Intel, claims that by reducing the price of the company's 100Megabit-speed desktop NICs they can give users the increased bandwidth at no extra cost, thereby ensuring the future scalability of the product.
"The big picture is to reduce cost and increase the feature set so as to make it more cost effective for the reseller and the end user," says Cronon.
Cronon points to two ways in which vendors reduce cost, through reducing the "form factor" or size of the adapter and utilising a commonality of technology and features across the vendor's product range.
Bengt Beyer-Ebbesen, Olicom senior network consultant for Asia-Pacific, admits this pricing strategy can lead to adverse effects for the channel.
Pricing goes down
"A big issue facing resellers regarding NICs is that while volume of sales has increased by approximately 20 per cent per quarter, revenues from NICs haven't increased significantly, because the prices keep going down."
Meanwhile industry analysts such as Graham Penn, general manager of research at IDC, are predicting little growth in the market with most of the opportunity for resellers existing in the SME market. Here resellers make their money on installation.
"NICs were the hot issue two years ago when everyone was talking about them but now the market has plateaued right out. They've reached commodity status," said Penn, with more new-generation PCs arriving with pre-installed NICs.
David Singh, technical support group manager for local reseller G-Star Computers, agrees, claiming that because the margins aren't there in NICs, vendor choice is primarily determined by a customer's existing standard.
However, 3Com's SME development director is convinced "people are making intelligent decisions" and resellers who are having trouble with margins are the ones with the point of view that "a NIC is a NIC", said Hurt.
As networks become more sophisticated, multi-vendor solu-tions have the potential to bring with them a whole host of compatibility problems. So while network interface cards are no exception, Cronon believes a lot of supposed NIC compatibility issues arise from not having the latest driver. A problem he feels can be easily rectified.
While remote management - being able to manipulate and maintain a PC from a centralised location - is seen as providing a cost reduction for the end user in network maintenance, it also sees the convergence of hardware and software.
Vendors are now launching peripheral products such as downloadable network management software to increase their NIC capabilities.
Mobile market. In relation to the mobile market, Gerald Makos, Xircom marketing manager, claims all NICs are not the same.
Makos believes "the biggest issue that users face today, whether it's an Ethernet, modem or Combo PC Card product, is the support issues related to cable, dongles or moving parts breaking or getting lost. Users want to know that when they buy a product it's going to work with their notebook today and, better still, work with their notebook tomorrow.
"An integrator is going to want to recommend and install a card that not only meets the current needs of the customer but will also provide long-term use with minimal support," he said.
"The next step in 'mobile connectivity' will be the integration of PDAs, handhelds and Pro machines into the network environment. As users get more mobile, and with the push coming from Microsoft on the WinCE front, this will become more and more a topic of discussion on the corporate level," said Makos.
Resellers. Some resellers disagree with vendors who claim to provide new and improved interface card technology. Simon Hum, product marketing mana-ger for network services company Alstrom Information Technology, argues: "To put it bluntly, all vendors are the same, there's no new technology in the marketplace.
"They've just got different badges."
Meanwhile regional resellers express slightly different concerns. Stuart Nicholas, managing director for Pin 6 Technology, a Hobart-based reseller, says that while functionality is important - "some NICs work and some don't" - the critical factor concerning vendor choice is access to a local distributor.
Internet - world's biggest network.
According to Hurt, "the trend across the board" is that e-commerce is the future for the sale of networking components as vendors and resellers alike look for more efficient ways to conduct their business.
"Intelligent resellers are working on more economical ways to run their business - and the Internet is the place to do it," said Hurt. "Smart resellers should be investing a lot of time and money into how they can take advantage of the Net."
Cronon echoes these sentiments claiming that local distributors are the ones to play a major role in using the Internet as a cost saver, reducing overheads and freeing up technical staff from chasing sales orders.
This trend will continue as security issues are resolved and people become more comfortable with the technology, with the onus on vendors to lead the way.
"In particular, for resellers and distributors it will be important that vendors offer them the capabilities to place their orders online and track their order status via the Net along with ready availability of product information," said Makos.
However, the extent to which e-commerce could translate into improved solutions for end users is limited, says Beyer-Ebbesen.
"People still like to have a relationship with their reseller. This could mean that companies buying between one and 100 NICs could go through a Web site and electronically make a transaction. But for those putting in a whole network, they will still want to deal with people," he said.
Department of Health and Aged Care. A case in point for network interface card compatibility arose when the Department of Health and Aged Care was forced to replace newly installed 3Com NICs with Olicom equivalents late last year, resulting in an $80,000 NIC reshuffle.
After installing 3Com cards into the Department's 30 servers based in Canberra, which maintain NT software on a nationwide ATM dual-path network, compatibility problems emerged with the Compaq server's PCI bus, a source told ARN. This led to legal ramifications.
Unable to support redundancy and loadsharing capabilities that the network required, the Department of Health and Aged Care sought another solution in the form of Olicom.
Released late last year, the triple-speed RapidFire 3540 High-Speed Token Ring is Olicom's foray into future-proofing its token ring products.
The network adapter runs at 100Mbps, 16Mbps or 4Mbps enabling users to prepare their infrastructure to move to a high-speed token ring in the future or when the need arises.
RapidFire 3540 features remote management technologies including Wake-on-LAN and Olicom's freely downloadable Web-based application LANscout Desktop Management.
The adapter also features support for auxiliary power from the PCI bus, and boasts one of the lowest system CPU utilisations on the market.
RapidFire 3540 Token-Ring 100/16/4 PCI Adapter is priced at approximately $455 through distribution partners.
Vying for a leadership position across all market segments, Intel has just announced a new 10/100 Fast Ethernet product range.
Announced last week, the Intel PRO/100 adapters cover server, desktop and notebook environments and are based on Intel's 82559, 3.3V chip set; designed to combine the performance feature requirements of a server with the power saving requirements of a mobile user.
Philip Cronon, Intel channel sales manager, claims this is possible with a 30 per cent reduction in size. This decrease also translates into reduced cost.
The PRO/100 adapters provide secure remote management and priority packaging, enabling IT managers to control high bandwidth applications such as Internet access.
The PRO/100+ Management and Server adapters will be available in February and March at $193 and $223 respectively. While the mobile PRO/100 CardBus II and LAN+Modem56 CardBus II adapters available in March are priced at $330 and $659.
Offering an economical one-NIC solution to upgrading 10Mbps-only coaxial environments to Fast Ethernet 10/100 networks, 3Com last year released its Fast EtherLink XL 10/100 PCI combo NIC.
Featuring 3Com's latest Fast Ethernet NIC technology, the 3-port desktop NIC includes Parallel Tasking for reduced CPU utilisation - eliminating PCI bus bottlenecks by bursting full packets across the PCI bus - and DynamicAccess software for enhanced desktop management through traffic prioritisation.
Hoping to capitalise on Fast Ethernet continuing to become the networking standard for corporate LANs, 3Com's Fast EtherLink provides network administrators with the opportunity to migrate to Fast Ethernet 10/100 through a variety of ports and connectivity options.
The Xircom RealPort CardBus Ethernet 10/100 + Modem 56 offers 10/100 Ethernet and 56Kbps modem technology in a single 32-bit card which also provides the capability for GSM or ISDN connectivity.
Heralded by Gerald Makos, Xircom's marketing manager, as "the world's first integrated PC Card" the mobile NIC is designed to distinguish Xircom from its competition.
Compatible with most of the major notebook PC vendors using two stacked Type II or one Type III PC card slot, RealPort's coup, claims Makos, is that it eliminates the support issues related to cables, dongles or moving parts breaking or getting lost.
Using a commonality of technology, Xircom has launched a variety of RealPort Integrated PC Card products for Ethernet, Modem and Ethernet + Modem products in 16-bit and 32-bit CardBus versions. Priced at $649 RRP, the RealPort PC Card is available through distribution partners.
Madge's new offering to compete in the high-speed token ring market, the 51-07 Smart 100/16/4 PCI-HS Ringnode, is set to be available by the end of February.
With success pegged to its scalability, the product offers increased features compared to its competitors claims Ian Lisle, Madge's marketing manager. As the vendor targets customers looking for built-in redundancy to protect mission-critical server applications, the product's feature set appears to be largely based on software add-ons.
Advanced Configuration and Power Interface compliant, a fundamental part of future Microsoft and Intel platforms, the Ringnode offers Magic Packet wake-on-LAN power management.
"With the assistance of Network Management Software the system administrator can remotely control, audit, debug or manage the machine as required," claimed company officials.
The 51-07 Smart 100/16/4 PCI-HS Ringnode has been shipped and is set to arrive in Australia shortly claims Lisle. With a US pricing of $240, the Ringnode will sell in Australia for approximately $390.
Intel Tel (02) 9937 5800
3Com Tel (02) 9937 5000
Madge Networks Tel 1800 653 816
Force Technology Tel (02) 9417 4477
Advanced Portable Technologies Tel (02) 9433 8300Xircom's distributors:
Tech Pacific Tel (02) 9381 6000
Express Data Tel 1300 367 968
CHA Tel (03) 9251 3111