Windows gets network boost

Microsoft has announced an add-on to Windows designed to improve network performance and scalability for such tasks as storage and backup when coupled with specialized hardware.

The Windows Server 2003 Scalable Networking Pack (SNP) is a network-acceleration and hardware-based offloading technology that relieves the CPU of certain tasks to improve performance. The enhancements, which are being made available as a free download, are targeted at storage, backup, Web hosting, TCP-based media streaming and real-time collaboration.

Users will need to purchase a specialized network interface card (NIC) to drive the software enhancements.

Microsoft demonstrated the add-on at its annual Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Seattle late last month, during a keynote address by Bob Muglia, Microsoft’s senior vice-president of the server and tools business.

The software and hardware combination is designed to ease network bottlenecks, such as CPU overhead and memory bandwidth related to network packet processing, and reduce the demands put on servers by today’s Gigabit Ethernet speeds.

“Overall, we are talking about better performance and scalability for data-intensive workloads,” says Ian Hameroff, product manager for Windows Server Core Networking. Microsoft hopes the improvements mean that users won’t have to purchase additional servers for their data centers or replace existing hardware to boost their network performance.

Microsoft will offer the SNP software for Windows Server 2003 (Service Pack 1 or later) in the 32-bit and 64-bit editions, and in the 64-bit edition of Windows XP Pro.

Hameroff said the operating system changes would not require changes to existing applications, network topology, server configurations or network-management tools.

The SNP architectural changes will be built into the next versions of the operating system, the Vista client, due to ship in November to corporate users, and the Longhorn Server, due in the second half of 2007.

Microsoft partners, including Broadcom, IBM and Dell, will supply NICs and pre-loaded hardware that support the SNP.

Microsoft has made the SNP architectural changes at the Network Driver Interface Specification (NDIS) layer.

The purpose of the NDIS is to define a standard API for NICs. Microsoft has added three technologies to the NDIS layer – TCP Chimney Offload, Receive-side Scaling and NetDMA.

The TCP Chimney Offload provides stateful offload of TCP traffic processing to network adapters that have a TCP Offload Engine (TOE). The intent is to reduce CPU overhead by passing tasks such as packet segmentation to the adapter, which can free the CPU to support more user sessions and reduce latency.

The Receive-side Scaling allows inbound network traffic to be shared across multiple CPUs using the new network interface enhancements. Microsoft says the feature is a benefit to applications that run on multi-processor machines and generate significant inbound traffic, such as Web hosting or file serving.

The NetDMA feature enables memory management through direct memory access offload on servers with technology such as Intel’s I/O Acceleration Technology.

The three performance and network changes are just the first that Microsoft plans to make in the operating system.

With Longhorn, Microsoft will improve the administrative control over offload policies and support offloading connections when firewalls and an IPSec policy are used. Microsoft also will include offload support for TCP connections that are IPSec-protected.

Vista also will include support for IPv6 and NDIS 6.0 APIs that allow multipacket processing on all data ports.

More information on the Windows Server 2003 Scalable Networking Pack can be found at this Web site.

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