3Com revs up copper Gigabit Ethernet gear

3Com Corp. next week will throw a few morsels to users hungry for more copper-based Gigabit Ethernet gear when it releases a new 1000Base-T switch module and server adapter.

The products are intended to help companies grow their Gigabit Ethernet networks without forcing them to yank out copper cabling from ceilings and building risers.

The 1000Base-T server network interface card (NIC) will also allow servers based on the emerging PCI-X bus architecture to take full advantage of Gigabit Ethernet, as well as provide the ability to send "jumbo" Ethernet frames for increased throughput.

3Com will announce a four-port 1000Base-T expansion module for its 12-port SuperStack III 4900 Gigabit Ethernet switch, bumping up the device's total Gigabit port count to 16. The module fits in the back of the stackable 4900 and could be used to link servers to a Gigabit Ethernet backbone over Category 5 wiring or to stack 4900s in a rack.

The jumbo advantage

The new server NIC was born partly out of technology acquired when 3Com bought Alteon WebSystems Inc.'s Gigabit NIC business from Nortel Networks Corp. in November.

One feature is support of 9K-byte jumbo frames, letting servers send and receive Ethernet frames larger than the standard length of 1.5K bytes. Other features include dual-NIC failover capabilities, virtual LAN tagging support on the NIC, as well as 802.3ad link aggregation.

3Com's continuation of the Alteon jumbo frames technology caught the attention of John Savage, chief systems engineer at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va.

"Jumbo framing is still a major feature for us," says Savage, who uses 3Com SuperStack 4900s and PCI-based Gigabit NICs from 3Com and Alteon.

Savage is also interested in the link aggregation features in the new 3Com NICs. Using jumbo frames and trunking multiple NICs, Savage says, "can really, really perk up your throughput, by as much as 50%." Savage adds that he has gotten up to 1.2G bit/sec of throughput on some of his servers using this method.

3Com's 10/100/1000 PCI-X server NIC is the first to support the emerging PCI-X bus standard for Intel-based servers. Until recently, server bus speeds were the ultimate clog in the deployment of end-to-end Gigabit Ethernet.

A traditional Intel-based server PCI bus can only handle up to 66 MHz of speed and 132M byte/sec of bandwidth. The PCI-X bus architecture provides speeds up to 133 MHz and allows up to 1G byte of throughput on a server bus. The technology, developed by IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq and others, was finalized in the fall.

Mike Wolf of research firm Cahners In-Stat sees the release of the new NIC as an important message from 3Com that the embattled company can still innovate.

"It's important for [3Com] to really re-establish itself because of all the fluctuations and turmoil they've experienced," he says. "They haven't been the most cutting-edge company in the NIC market as of late."

Despite what it means for 3Com, the key aspect of the new NIC and switch modules for users is the fact that they run on Cat 5 wiring, Savage says.

"Within a building, [copper Gigabit] is wonderful," he says, adding that having the same medium from workstations to workgroup hubs all the way to the servers is preferred to mixing fiber and copper between the network edge and core.

"If you connect servers to the backbone with gigabit fiber, sooner or later, you'll have to switch back to copper, which can be a bottleneck," Savage says.

Stand-alone media conversion products and switches with built-in fiber/copper conversion are also expensive, he says.

"Plus, fiber is expensive. If you have a big building and want to use [Gigabit Ethernet], you're faced with having to run all new cable, and that can be discouraging," Savage adds.

3Com: www.3com.com

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