Continuing advances in technology surrounding the network, as well as the devices attached to it, can make buying the right network interface cards (NICs) as difficult as hitting a moving target.
But while new technology is making life difficult for buyers, it is coming to the aid of resellers, giving them more scope to add value to a complete network solution rather than supplying components that are rapidly becoming commodity items.
For instance, take the recently released dual channel adaptor from SMC, which gives the functionality of two Ethernet NICs but takes up only one slot in a PCI server.
"Users get two independent channels which allows them to segment networks while saving a slot in the server," said SMC's district sales manager Charlotte Gorban.
Since the cost of SMC's dual-channel PCI adaptor is lower than two single-channel PCI adaptors, users achieve greater economy. But they are also getting superior performance, as the PCI bus eliminates bottlenecks by bypassing the traditional I/O bus and thus giving a shorter path to the CPU than ISA or EISA bus systems.
Advances in NICs such as this are likely to continue in areas such as raw performance through to the ability to perform multiple processes simultaneously.
SMC labels its approach to this second technology as SimulTasking. Less time moving data on and off the network means more time processing data.
3Com's approach to the same issue is called Parallel Tasking. Again, this involves the card starting to write the first portion of a data frame onto the network before it has completed reading it from the PC's memory. Parallel Tasking also adjusts the timing of interrupts to eliminate the lag that can slow down NICs.
Another innovation in NICs will see them become an active component that interacts intelligently with the network. The card will analyse network traffic, support real-time applications such as videoconferencing and allow more efficient network management.
"This is important in a network carrying a mixture of traffic from low priority - like e-mail - to high priority like simultaneous two way videoconferencing," said 3Com ANZA's marketing manager Andrew Hurt.
Assigning priorities to traffic on a network makes more efficient use of bandwidth. Software drivers enable users to select priorities for different applications.
"It means the network looks like an airline," said Hurt. "Waiting in the lounge on stand-by are e-mail and applications like text-indexing and searching.
"In economy class are order entry and elec-tronic commerce applications. Business class in an airline has more and a separate passenger compartment. In a network this would equate to higher bandwidth and more security for applications such as one way audio/visual and security applications.
"In first class you have the maximum amount of room and privileges. In a network such amenities would be reserved for the most demanding applications such as two way audio/visual applications and real time monitoring," said Hurt.
"Resellers should be aware that only the newer generation NIC will be capable of handling traffic like this," he said. "The plain vanilla NIC will not be capable of handling such a mixture of traffic in an efficient manner."
But while 3Com may be changing the options available in the NIC market, it may also be taking some of that marketplace away. Hurt says his company is negotiating with PC vendors to have the cards themselves pre-installed in their PCs.
"This will make a stronger case for resellers being able to package a complete end-to-end solution for an organisation," he said. "If they are selling a network, it makes the decision easier for the buyer - they don't have to worry about what NICs to use.
"This allows the reseller more time to concentrate on the higher value products like routers and switches and the installation of the network plus training for end users," he said.
Together with SMC and Intel, 3Com is one of the leading players in the NIC market. It recently signed a $US6.6 billion deal to acquire US Robotics, which is likely to see 3Com move more into the retail channel using US Robotics' experience in the modem marketplace.
The need for speed
Feedback from the industry indicates that, as expected, there is a growing move to 100Mbit/sec cards. IDC Australia's research showed such cards comprised just 8 per cent of total shipments in 1996.
But that was up from 2.5 per cent in 1995, according to Amar Toor, IDC's network market analyst. "What is significant is that Fast Ethernet overtook token ring shipments for the first time in 1996," he said.
During the year token ring NICs totalled 48,100 - down 18 per cent from 59,000 in 1995. Fast Ethernet shipments in 1996 were 54,400.
The total market for NICs in Australia is about 700,000 units per year. "Standard Ethernet makes up about 84 per cent of the market," Toor said. "We expect that by 2000, it will be Fast Ethernet that will make up more than 80 per cent of the market."
Driving users to the wider bandwidth is the increasing use of multimedia. Intel - a major supplier of NICs - said the Internet and intranets were also pushing users towards Fast Ethernet.
"Another strong trend is the move to the PCI standard," Toor said. But the outstanding performer in 1996 was PC cards with a growth rate of 280 per cent over the previous year.
"As use of the Internet and intranets grow, many notebook PC users are now connecting to networks," Toor said.
More NIC manufacturers are now making cards that are dual 10/100Mbit/sec products. When an organisation is ready to upgrade a LAN to the higher speed, it is simply a matter of connecting to a 100Base-T hub or switch port. The cards automatically sense the port speed and reconfigure to the higher speed.
IDC is counting the dual speed cards as Fast Ethernet NICs. "They are becoming very cost effective," said Toor. They also ensure end-user organisations are ready for the move to Fast Ethernet.