Intel Ethernet Controllers Promise System Performance Boost

Intel launches the second generation of its Gigabit Ethernet and 10 Gigabit Ethernet controllers.

Despite slow adoption of 10 Gigabit Ethernet beyond niche applications, Intel on July 23 launched the second generation of its Gigabit Ethernet and 10 Gigabit Ethernet controllers for network interface cards.

The two new Ethernet controllers are designed specifically for multicore servers and servers that implement virtual machine technology. They are intended to exploit the twin trends of server virtualization in the data center as well as data center consolidation enabled by blade servers.

"From a 10 Gigabit [Ethernet] perspective, there is no doubt blades will lead the transition [from Gigabit Ethernet]. There are products being announced where the backplane or midplane of those are upgraded to 10 Gigabit speeds, which lends itself to 10 Gigabit Ethernet," said Sunil Ahluwalia, 10 Gigabit product line manager in Intels LAN Access Division in Hillsboro, Ore.

Four years after its first-generation 10 Gigabit Ethernet controllers, Intel will release into production in September a family of controllers designed for dual ports based on PCI Express technology to enable full line rates, according to Steve Schultz, product marketing manager at Intels LAN Access Division.

By distributing packet processing across all available processing cores, the new Intel 82598 and Intel 82575 can reduce CPU utilization to boost system performance.

Intel used multiple techniques to efficiently distribute the workload across multicores. Its implementation of the industry-standard MSI-X can target interrupts toward a specific core, and the controller has multiple transmit and receive queues to help load-balance traffic across the core.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read what Cisco is doing to lower the cost of 10G Ethernet.

To boost performance in virtual machine environments, Intel devised the Virtual Machine Device Queues, which help to offload the sorting activity required for sending packets to different virtual machines. The VMDQ function, implemented in silicon, gets the packet, reads it, understands it and puts it in a specific queue. It requires a software upgrade on the part of virtual machine providers such as VMware.

"Were working closely with VMware, ZEN and Microsoft, in terms of their software-enabling this feature. They would have to update their software to exploit this," said Ahluwalia.

Intel also added functions to allow acceleration for iSCSI as well as support for Fibre Channel over Ethernet in the new controllers.

Intel stressed that the new controllers require less power than the previous generation, with an average draw of 4.8 watts. Power consumption is one of the factors holding back more widespread adoption of 10 Gigabit Ethernet, believes Aileen Arcilla, senior analyst at IDC, in San Mateo, Calif.

"Power will still be an issue. How they operate in the field and how well new standards handle the power issue will dictate how quickly customers from a server or switch perspective transition from Gigabit Ethernet to 10 Gigabit Ethernet," she said.

Intel is not alone in addressing 10 Gigabit Ethernet performance issues. Also pushing the market along are large rivals such as Broadcom as well as more aggressive startups such as Neterion, according to Bob Wheeler, analyst with the Linley Group in Mountain View, Calif.

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The Intel 82598 10 Gigabit Ethernet controller and Intel 82575 Gigabit Ethernet controller will be in full production in September. The 82575 is designed for Intels next-generation quad-port server adapters.

Intel, which has sampled the new controllers to some 65 manufacturers, achieved design wins with four of the top five server manufacturers, Schultz said.

Intel is also working with Cisco Systems and Microsoft on the new controllers. At Ciscos Networkers user conference in Anaheim, Calif., Intel demonstrated the controllers working with servers running Microsofts forthcoming Windows Server 2008 on dual quad-core processors.

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