Metcalfe's column: From the Ether

Larry Boucher's third Silicon Valley startup, Alacritech, is launching a new line of NICs (network interface cards). Boucher aims to halve the market for Internet servers by off-loading their TCP/IP protocols.

Well, the market for Internet servers is huge. According to IDC, at www.idc.com, sales of Intel-based servers under $25,000, led by Compaq Computer, Dell Computer, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard, were up 26 percent last year to $17 billion. A halving of these sales would be big news indeed.

Servers do a lot of TCP/IP protocol processing on intranets. And Internet traffic is reportedly doubling every 100 days. So Alacritech's future looks bright. Watch www.alacritech.com for Boucher's launch this month.

But Boucher admits that Internet experts are against moving TCP/IP from software on general-purpose microprocessors into special-purpose silicon.

Their studies show that TCP/IP software has no hot spots (frequently executed code) that would speed up significantly in silicon.

Boucher will counter these studies with racks of NICs, each four ports of 100Mbps Ethernet running wire-speed TCP/IP with reduced server loads.

Old software-stack NICs will saturate an entire Intel Xeon processor delivering only 400Mbps of TCP/IP. New Alacritech silicon-stack NICs will deliver 800Mbps with only 20 percent of a Xeon, Boucher says.

Now, are we to believe Boucher before the InfoWorld Test Center has time to examine his claims?

In the 1970s, Boucher left IBM for Shugart Associates, where he invented SCSI -- pronounced "Scuzzy."

In 1981, Boucher founded Adaptec and took it public in 1986, back when going public meant something.

Boucher still chairs Adaptec, which has annual data-movement revenues of about $1 billion.

In 1987, Boucher founded Auspex, a manufacturer of network file systems. There he worked on improving the performance of Unix and NT running on what today are called network appliances.

In 1996, Boucher founded Alacritech, named for alacrity, which means promptness in response.

SCSI is a standard for connecting peripherals, especially disks, to PCs and servers.

It evolved from versions 1 to 3, from 8-bit to 16-bit wide, from fast to ultra. Today, Ultra160 SCSI operates at 160MBps and even has its own Web site, www.ultra160-scsi.com.

Let me digress here to make a fine point perfectly clear: Just as silicon and silicone are not the same, neither are MBps (with a capital B) and Mbps (with a lowercase b).

MBps is megaBYTES per second, a term used by disk folks. Mbps is megaBITS per second, a term used by network folks.

They differ by a factor of eight: 1MBps equals 8Mbps. Ultra160 SCSI operates at 160MBps, which is 1,080Mbps, or 1.08Gbps.

Of course, SCSI is not the only standard that's speeding up. Ethernet, for example, has gone from 10Mbps to 100Mbps to 1Gbps, and soon 10Gbps.

Moore's Law says processor power doubles every 18 months, and we're all to get gigahertz PCs soon.

But bandwidth doublings leave Moore in the dust. Speeds are doubling on optical fibers every 12 months, and are now approaching 1Tbps.Processor cycles per transmitted bit are going down. If Xeons strain to process TCP/IP at 100Mbps, Itaniums are dead at 1Gbps and beyond.

Internet experts who say Moore's Law means TCP/IP should remain in software are overlooking two facts: Moore's Law is not keeping up, and Moore's doublings also apply to Boucher's outboard TCP/IP silicon.

I asked Boucher about protocol processing on SANs (storage area networks) such as Fibre Channel (see www.fibrechannel.org). Not surprisingly, he and I resonated on SCSI, with and without TCP/IP, over Ethernet.

Now I'm thinking that when 10Gbps Ethernet arrives with TCP/IP in silicon, Fibre Channel will follow FDDI into the oblivion that awaits all Ethernot technologies.

Technology pundit Bob Metcalfe built his first NIC in 1970 for Arpanet. He and David Boggs built the first Ethernet NIC in 1973. Bob founded 3Com in 1979 and sold his last million NICs there in 1990. Old Saint NIC to his really good friends, Bob now opines at www.infoworld.com/metcalfe.

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