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NICS: is the golden goose dead?

NICS: is the golden goose dead?

The network interface card market has gone through many changes in the last 10 years but may, in its various guises, be on the way back. David Binning looks at the state of the market and what's new from major vendors.

When Bob Metcalfe was a student as Stamford University in the '80s he had an idea to create a technology which would enable computers to talk to each other over a network. That technology was called Ethernet.

Now, most of the world's computers connected to a network use little else. But it wasn't just Ethernet itself that enabled Metcalfe to create 3Com and become one of the richest Americans in the booming computer business.

It was the little cards which you stuck in your computer, or network interface cards, now known simply as NICs, that produced golden eggs for the company for nearly a decade.

A couple of guys down the corridor at Stamford created a little company called Cisco Systems with a charter to build and supply the technology which ran the world's networks.

With 3Com providing the links between this equipment and the computers, the two companies dominated the networking industry for many years as PC usage and the demand for bandwidth began its exponential rise.

So what changed? Last week, 3Com's stock rose amid rumours that it may be acquired by one of the big communications companies, with Lucent Technologies named as a likely suitor.

Five years ago, 3Com would not have been an acquisition target for anyone, said Paul Ventura, vice president of global networking strategies with the Meta Group, Asia-Pacific. "We don't think of them as a tier-one company any more."

Over the last few years, the comoditised NIC business has waned somewhat as computer manufacturers place more and more networking technology into their machines and organisations.

"The market has become highly commoditised with prices falling to the extent where they have been bundled with just about every PC these days," Ventura said.

This transition has seen 3Com struggle to redefine itself as a provider of networking solutions rivalling those of the Ciscos, Lucents and Nortels of the communications world.

Accompanying rumours of a 3Com takeover, there was also talk in the US last week that the company would spin off its Palm Pilot handheld computing division to emphasise its focus on corporate solutions.

Michelle Selder, product marketing manager with 3Com Asia-Pacific in Hong Kong, said that the company no longer looks at the NIC market as a separate entity. Rather, it is evolving a network solutions strategy focused on delivering sophisticated solutions to the desktop where there is a high concentration of 3Com NICs.

"The NIC is of course crucial for basic connectivity," Selder said, "but where 3Com is looking to make an impact is by using this piece of equipment on the PC to remotely manage computing environments and improve traffic management."

For instance, 3Com is hoping to use the NIC sitting on a computer to offload and execute encryption tasks from the computer's CPU, targeting the growing concern for network security amongst organisations and even home users.

According to Philip Cronin, area sales manager with Intel Australia, it's a natural progression for computers to absorb more and more networking technology as things like e-mail and Internet access become standard functions. But he also believes that this development will create a new market for non-embedded networking products for computers.

As more and more people get online and use e-mail, even Telstra concedes that data will far outstrip voice and organisations will begin demanding simple networking devices offering improved security and quality of service.

"NIC manufacturers have typically focused little on security in the past," Cronin said, but he feels that the last 12 months has seen more advances in NIC technology than ever before.

For nearly 10 years Ethernet was stuck at 10Mbps. In the last two to three years this has jumped to 100Mbps with Gigabit now firm in people's minds.

"This market will be huge. There's still lots of money in NICs, with plenty of opportunities in the channel and a fair amount of sustainable growth," Cronin added.

One such area likely to absorb much of the innovation on the security side is that of virtual private networks where data is potentially vulnerable to interference.

Last year, Intel released its 8460B Fast Ethernet NIC which was one of the first to incorporate two new IEEE standards, one covering priority packing and the other addressing quality of service levels.

Cronin believes that because of the emphasis on being connected to a network these days, the network card can often be the most vulnerable point on a computer.

Intel said that it plans to release a security card using the IEEE-approved IP SEC security standard some time this year.

NICs, as they were once known, are an increasingly smaller piece of the overall picture of network connectivity these days as new technologies emerge. But resellers interviewed by ARN appear far from perturbed by this development. According to most, the reality is that while there are less products fitting the traditional definition of a NIC, more and more exciting products are emerging where network interfacing is merely part of their function.

Steve O'Connor, technical consultant with Melbourne-based reseller ADB Computer Systems, said his company buys NICs when they are needed but the real interest is in the emerging area of wireless LAN communications.

"We are seeing growing interest in this segment of the market," he said, while acknowledging that the equipment is more expensive with somewhat limited applications at the moment.

Melbourne-based distributor Chips and Bits is awaiting developments in the wireless networking space in the hope that this will spur greater demand for network cards or adapters.

But as Scott Carlisle, managing director of Chips and Bits, said: "Until the big players like 3Com and Intel get going, the uptake of wireless network adapters will be slow in this area."

If this does indeed happen, what was once known as the market for NICs will quickly become a market for receivers and transmitters, with both systems integrators and computer manufacturers jostling to offer the best speeds over the longest distances.

Both Intel's Cronin and 3Com's Selder agree that once prices come down for wireless LAN equipment, the networking market will undergo a major transformation.

Right now, though, networking companies are focused on improving remote manageability for computers using software to make NICs smarter and better integrated with computers.

The benefit of this capability for users and systems integrators is clear: an on-site technician must set up PCs, servers and establish driver sets for all of the computers.

"In the past this was the biggest time waster for engineers," Cronin said.

Gerald Makos, product marketing manager with Xircom Asia-Pacific, agrees. The company claims it developed a NIC product years ago that it believed would have left the competition for dead, but decided against releasing it so as to avoid the potential damage which may have occurred if it took on the likes of 3Com.

Even though the company doesn't actually offer a NIC product per se, it claims to be active in the market with a number of products all aimed at networking connectivity for desktops and users on the move.

"The NIC is just another means of communication depending on where the user is at," Xircom said.

Last week Xircom released its PortStation, modular USB device connectivity product. The PortStation is designed to consolidate all PC compatible devices into the one unit, reducing cabling and fiddling for users struggling to connect their printers, scanners, modems, PDAs or even digital cameras to their computer.

The product is designed for PCs equipped with a USB (universal serial bus) port. USB is the connectivity standard for the PC and obviates the need to reconfigure a computer every time a new device is added.

"People who wouldn't dream of installing NIC cards on their desktop will suddenly be able to share resources via many devices," Makos said.

John DiGiovanni, product line manager with Xircom, said that the PortStation is projected to contribute 20 per cent of Xircom's total global revenues within 12 months.

The Meta Group's Ventura said that the NIC market is entirely devoid of any diversity and has been for the last five years.

"A NIC is really anything that interfaces you to a network," Ventura said. "It's not a differentiated market anymore."

For instance, these days most portable computers have a PCMCIA slot which is the standard port for connecting most credit card-sized cards. The card might be for a modem, smart card reader or any number of things.

"Arguably there is a NIC in every PC," said Chips and Bits' Carlisle.

Tolkien ring

While the vast majority of networking business for the desktop is in Ethernet cards and switches, die-hard proponents of token ring still believe the technology will make it to the desktop and spur demand for TR NICS. Is it a fantasy? Meta's Ventura thinks so.

"Token ring has certainly had its day," he said. "With Gigabit Ethernet now threatening to enter the desktop arena, I think TR to the desktop is highly unlikely."

Graham Carter, Madge Networks' business development manager, Asia-Pacific, disagrees.

"If TR makes it to the desktop, users will get far more reliable and superior connectivity to that offered by other 100Mbps technologies such as Ethernet and ATM," Carter claims.

Madge Networks recently acquired the token ring division of Danish networking company Olicom picking up its PopularRapid Fire range of token ring products.

Token ring is used by many of the world's largest organisations but has not seen a green field implementation for some years with upgrading and maintenance the only thing keeping the industry alive.

Carter was optimistic about the future of the TR NIC market and predicts a broad migration from 16Mbps TR to 100Mbps. One of the biggest criticisms network managers had of TR was its previous top speed of 16Mbps while technologies such as Ethernet were standardising on 100Mbps speeds. The comparison is somewhat misleading, however, as TR supports larger packets than Ethernet.

The token ring end-user base is estimated to be 20 million users worldwide, predominantly from large corporations.

Safeguarding the Achilles heel

by Jon William Toigo

Software for creating virtual NIC arrays is the new armour for a weak link. The Ford Foundation and the city of New York are on a growing list of organisations that know firsthand the high cost of downtime from failed network interface cards. Contingency Planning Research, a consulting firm in New Jersey, has estimated the cost of such downtime to be between tens of thousands and millions of dollars per hour, depending on the commercial environment.

Cheap NICs can be the Achilles heel of otherwise carefully crafted enterprise architectures. That's why Dave Wilbanks, CEO of IP Metrics Software, a software development and integration firm in Dallas, makes a nice living implementing NIC redundancy and failover with software called NIC Express. Installing redundant NICs in the same server isn't a new strategy, of course, notes Wilbanks.

But NIC Express automates the process of setting operating-system parameters - in this case, for Windows NT Server - and the address for the backup card.

"Basically it eliminates the cost of using a technician to do that job," Wilbanks explains. The driver software sits between the NT protocol stack and the adapter driver to deliver both failover and load balancing across multiple NICs.

Although products from 3Com and other vendors offer failover functions, Wilbanks observes that there's a large installed base of older NIC products that can be included in a virtual NIC array scheme.

Wilbanks sees other opportunities, too, for a comprehensive enterprise-class NIC management-software suite, including Wake on LAN support for older NICs that lack hardware prerequisites specified in Intel's Wired for Management (WfM) profile.

"Wake on LAN is huge with companies that want to deliver applications to desktops at night," Wilbanks observes.

However, only a handful of vendors of management software are currently building WfM support into their products. These include ON Technology, Computer Associates and Platinum Technology. For integrators, leveraging this software is unquestionably an important differentiator in an otherwise commodity NIC sale.

What's new from . . . Xircom

Computer users who have been looking for an easier way to connect a growing collection of peripheral devices may find the answer with the Xircom PortStation, released in Australia last week.

The PortStation is designed to consolidate all PC compatible devices into the one unit, reducing cabling and fiddling for users struggling to connect their printers, scanners, modems, PDAs or even digital cameras to their computer.

The product is designed for PCs equipped with a USB (universal serial bus) port. USB is the connectivity standard for the PC and obviates the need to reconfigure a computer every time a new device is added.

Users can also remove just about any device without having to reboot their computer or consult a manual for the correct software settings. The product supports most parallel, serial and USB devices.

The PortStation is available in Australia now and ships in three different kits.

The USB Hub Starter Kit comes with a 7-port USB module and has an RRP of $255.

The Connection Starter Kit ships with a 4-port USB hub module, a parallel DB-25 module, and a serial PS/2 module. Its RRP is $345.

The Office Communications Starter Kit has a parallel DB-25 module, a serial PS/2 module and a 10 Base T Ethernet module. Its RRP is $415. All kits ship with USB cable, power adapter and "end caps" for input and output.

Xircom's distributors in Australia are Express Data, Tech Pacific and Computer Hardware of Australia.

Express Data

Tel (02) 9598 9100

Tech Pacific

Tel (02) 9381 6000

CHA

Tel (03) 9251 3111

What's new from . . . Micronet

The SP2500K Fast Ethernet adapter is designed to provide easy migration between 10 and 100Mbps Ethernet. The product runs at 10 or 100Mbps speeds depending on the speed of the hub port you're attached to.

If you're using a workstation at 10Mbps and want to change to 100, change the hub setting and the SP2500K will automatically adjust to the new speed.

Other features include: full compatibility with IEEE802.3 priority management standards; mounted LED display for easier management and troubleshooting; and full plug-and-play installation and a jumper-less board. The SP2500K ships with easy-to-use configuration software. Available now, its RRP is $79.00.

Micronet products are distributed in Australia by Advanced Pacific Peripherals.

Advanced Pacific Peripherals

Tel (02) 9557 8211

What's new from . . . 3Com

Ethernet 10/100 PCI NIC is the latest NIC product from 3Com, offering complete management of the desktop and featuring a new remote systems alert function to inform network managers of systems failures or even theft.

Generally accepted as the leader in the Ethernet NIC business, 3Com has signalled plans to develop a more integrated approach to network solutions management as it focuses more energy in developing large-scale corporate products such as switches and routers.

Products like the 10/100 PCI NIC are part of 3Com's strategy to tightly integrate large networks with sprawling desktop environments.

In addition to its alert feature, new PCI NIC offers enhanced remote wake-up and what 3Com calls the PC boot agent which allows network managers to monitor and support all systems remotely.

The 3Com Ethernet 10/100 PCI NIC has an estimated street price of $300.

3Com

Tel (02) 9937 5000

http://www.3com.com

What's new from . . . Madge

The Madge Smart 100/16/14 Ringnode100Mbps token ring adapter is designed to prepare any workstations for future increases in bandwidth demand.

Madge claims that the Smart Ringnode can boost performance of token ring networks by up to 600 per cent usng standard token ring cables and data formats.

It provides 100Mbps scalability for the same price as today's 16/4-only connections. This autosensing adapter can be connected into 4 or 16Mbps token ring networks today and can be easily upgraded to 100Mbps without having to touch the PC. ESP is $365.

Madge

Tel (02) 9936 1701


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