10G NIC vendor pumps up server performance

Few network products are as commoditized as the network interface card. But start-up S2IO is looking to break that notion with the recent debut of its 10G Ethernet server adapters that offer users quality of service, TCP/IP offload and other features designed to increase server performance.

S2IO in October debuted its Xframe product, a PCI-X server adapter that can connect machines with 802.3ae 10G Ethernet links using the 10GBase-LR fiber-optic standard.

S2IO NICs are being tested at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories (LLNL), a defense department research facility in Livermore, Calf. While the lab has not committed to the product, 10G NICs on high-end servers is a definite need there, says Dave Wiltzius, network division leader at LLNL.

Users can expect around 6G to 8G bit/sec of data payload throughput (data packets minus TCP/IP and other protocol overhead) when deploying its NICs, says Kimball Brown, vice president of marketing for S2IO. This is because of limitations in thePCI-X bus architecture and packet overhead from TCP/IP.

Brown says the XFrame NIC will add other benefits to large server performance, such as the ability to tag packets with eight QoS bit levels, which could help prioritize jitter-sensitive traffic streams from a server.

The NIC also performs several TCP/IP offload functions, such as IPv4 and IPv6 header checksum offload, and packet fragment detection.

Offloading these tasks from server operating system software to the NIC can improve server performance, letting CPUs work on application tasks instead of networking computations. These offload functions can be configured in the NIC's driver software without any major changes or tweaks to a network operating system's TCP/IP stack, according to Brown.

Although the throughput won't be a full 10G bit/sec, LLNL's Wiltzius says pushing 6G to 8G bit/sec through the NICs still will be an exponential bandwidth boost from current 4G bit/sec trunked connections.

"When you aggregate connections, that can lead to hashing of packet headers as the links are reassembled back into a logical stream," Wiltzius says. "One or two big pipes would eliminate that."

Analysts say Moore's Law will drive growth in the 10G NIC market; as the power of server processors grows, users will look to add fatter network pipes to these boxes. While only 7,000 10G NICs will ship next year, Gartner says that number will grow to a half-million by 2007. Meanwhile, the analyst firm predicts that over the same time period, prices will fall from about US$8,000 per NIC today to US$3,000.