Performance and availability are key issues in any network environment, and building them into your network is not always easy. It usually involves expensive hardware, such as proprietary network interface cards (NICs) and switches. But IP Metrics Software offers a solution for Windows NT environments with NIC Express, Version 1.1. This software-based product brings both fault tolerance and increased bandwidth to NICs, and can significantly increase your network's performance. I highly recommend it.
When I last looked at NIC Express I found that although it significantly boosted performance, its user interface needed improvement and its performance was slightly slow. Version 1.1 is a minor upgrade in which the user interface has been modified to include an Advance tab, which let me reactivate offline adapters and configure the parameters that control the handling of NIC failures. I didn't see a significant performance increase in this version, which means it remains slightly slower than NSI Software's competing Balance Suite for Windows NT 2.50.
NIC Express works across multiple network cards and can increase system performance by load-balancing client connections across installed NICs. Load-balancing effectively increases NIC bandwidth by a factor equal to the number of adapters in the server controlled by NIC Express. Also, the NICs collectively appear as a single network interface to the server.
You will be happy to learn that NIC Express doesn't rely on proprietary network cards and that it supports all network adapters that are supported by the Windows NT OS, which means you can use your existing hardware. It works on Ethernet networks using IP, IPX, NetBEUI, and AppleTalk protocols. Also, IP Metrics has recently released its new Token Ring version of NIC Express.
The software runs on both Intel and Alpha platforms, and can report failures by sending SNMP traps and writing Event Log entries.
I installed and tested NIC Express on Windows NT Server 4.0 running on a 300MHz Pentium processor using 64Mbytes of RAM, four 100Mbyte network cards, and the TCP/IP protocol. Because the product installs itself between the network interface drivers and the network protocol stack, it does not install like a typical application, which uses an InstallShield wizard. I installed it using the Network applet in the Control Panel, just like any other network protocol.
To begin the installation I opened the Network applet, chose to add a new protocol from disk, and then entered the path to the software. The Network applet copied the required files, and presented a well-designed configuration dialog. In the dialog box, I defined a new array name and assigned NICs to that array quickly, by simply clicking on an adapter from the list and then clicking the Add button. Because the entire array uses a single IP address, which saves address space, selecting the address to use is no different than defining addresses for a normal network card.
Once I had the array defined and configured to my liking, I rebooted the system to put the software into action. NT recognises NIC Express as a single virtual network adapter bound to the TCP/IP protocol. Using the Network applet, I could review the IP address, subnet mask, DNS servers, and other related settings, just as I have become accustomed to doing with regular NIC configurations. After verifying the IP address for the virtual adapter, a simple PING test verified that the virtual interface was responding correctly on the network.
You can check the status of the defined arrays and assigned NICs by opening the properties dialog in the Network Control Panel applet. Coloured icons ranging from green to red represent an adapter's status.
I tested NIC Express by repeatedly unplugging network adapter cards from my hub. Each time I did this, the product accurately detected the broken connection and appropriately took that particular NIC temporarily offline. If NIC Express detects an adapter failure more than three times in one hour, it will permanently remove the NIC from the array until an administrator manually reactivates it.
To test the software for throughput performance, I used several Windows NT Workstations to simultaneously copy a large 20Mbyte file back and forth to the server. On average, I was able to see a 75 per cent increase in speed compared to file-copy operations on network adapters not using NIC Express.
Overall, IP Metrics' NIC Express is a fantastic product. Although the price has almost doubled since the last time I reviewed it, NIC Express still offers a great value compared to hardware-based solutions.
Mark Joseph Edwards is a writer and network engineer/security consultant in Fort Collins, Ohio. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The bottom line: very good
NIC Express, version 1.1
This inexpensive, software-based fault-tolerance and performance-enhancement solution for Windows NT networks delivers automatic network adapter fail-over and high performance increases.
Pros: Easy installation; significant performance increase; automatic network adapter fail-over.
Cons: Slightly slower than competing products.
IP Metrics Software, Euless, Texas; +1 (817) 358-1007; www.ipmetrics.com.
Price: $US349 per server (Ethernet); $695 per server (Token Ring).
Platforms: Windows NT Server 4.0 or Windows NT Workstation 4.0 (with Service Pack 3 and Network Drive Interface Specification Hotfix).