NICs embed smarts

3Com Canada Inc.’s recent move to embed more management functions in its NIC cards is emblematic of two major networking trends, according to an industry analyst.

The first trend is the move toward intelligent networks and the second is the use of NT as the control operating system within network infrastructure hardware.

“You see 3Com going down that route, both in their CoreBuilder products and historically their Total Control product, and Fore Systems with their Berkeley acquisition is another one going down that route,” said Mark Fabbi, an analyst with Gartner Group Canada Inc. in Mississauga, Ont. “But we still haven’t seen the likes of Nortel (Networks) or Cisco (Systems Inc.) say they’ll embed NT as their control processing platform.”

3Com’s Fast EtherLink XL PCI 10/100 NIC now includes hooks that will allow it to take advantage of the system management and disaster recovery features of Microsoft Corp.’s still-to-be-released Windows 2000 Remote Installation Services.

Fast EtherLink customers will be able to automatically perform a variety of tasks including operating system upgrades, trouble shooting, virus scanning and recovering damaged PCs.

Other embedded management features in the 3Com cards include: remote wake-up for after hours administration; a managed boot agent that allows PCs to boot from the network for operating system installations and repairs; Parallel Tasking II technology which increases throughput by bursting full packets across the PCI bus; and DynamicAccess Software with 802.1p/q traffic prioritization and distributed RMON agents for collecting and reporting network performance statistics.

In addition, 3Com has announced an agreement with VLSI Technology Inc., which will see VLSI supply 3Com with security co-processor chips for its NICs.

Fabbi said 3Com is pushing more and more intelligence into the NIC, because the company dominates the NIC market. He found the inclusion of traffic prioritization in the NIC a particularly interesting feature.

“It’s a different approach and one that will force you to manage down to the NIC, which is an approach that most network managers haven’t taken today. Clearly they manage the routers, increasingly they manage the core switches, but even a lot of the Layer 2 stuff has only been passively managed.”

While moving some of the processing overhead from the server into the NIC should help free up server CPUs, which are one of the biggest bottlenecks in networks today, Fabbi doesn’t think most network managers are ready to manage down to the desktop NIC.

But Nick Tidd, 3Com Canada’s director of sales, said the NIC traffic prioritization will make network managers’ jobs simpler by allowing them to prioritize by application rather than by user, right down to the desktop.

“Taking it down to the desktop means we’re not in a hierarchy-type environment,” he said. “Previously it was managed at the server by the IS administrator. Now it’s application-dependent, so you can offer more bandwidth to users based on the application they’re using.”

All new NIC features, except the security co-processor, are available now.

3Com Canada in Burlington, Ont., can be reached at 1-800-638-3266 or at