Interface Card Gives Servers Extra Punch

Computer World –

Not all the big ideas in hardware come from giant companies. Consider Larry Boucher, who founded Milpitas, Calif.-based storage firm Adaptec Inc. and Santa Clara, Calif.-based Auspex Systems Inc., a pioneer in network-attached storage devices.

Boucher's latest company, San Jose-based Alacritech Inc., is shipping a network interface card that it claims can boost the amount of TCP/IP data a Windows NT server can handle by as much as 800%. The cards off-load some of the most demanding work from the main server microprocessor to a specialized processor on the network adapter, freeing the server CPU for other work.

This extends the life of existing servers while reducing the number of servers that information technology managers must support, says William Hurley, an analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston.

Alacritech claims its network adapters, tested against those from Intel Corp., can cut CPU utilization from 100% to 22%, in some cases, and improve network throughput from 425M bit/sec. to 872M bit/sec.

One Step Ahead

At least for now, Alacritech has a unique implementation of this process called TCP/IP off-load that beats network adapters from larger competitors such as Intel and Santa Clara, Calif.-based 3Com Corp., analysts say. While they haven't seen 800% performance improvements, several customers say Alacritech's cards hold enormous benefits for application servers and e-commerce servers that back up massive amounts of data.

Boucher, who is both chairman of Adaptec and president and CEO of Alacritech, says the new cards off-load only the portion of the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) that examines the packets traveling to or from the network. It then assembles them in the proper order and delivers them to the receiving application.

The concept of such off-loading isn't new. What is unique, says Boucher, is off-loading only the TCP work and giving it to specialized chips, which Alacritech designs and outside manufacturers build.

Boucher says he was undaunted when "industry experts" told him this combination, which makes the technique affordable for mainstream use, was impossible to achieve. "If it can't be done," he says, "then it ought to be an interesting thing to do."

Rick Halbardier, a project coordinator at the Washoe County, Nev., IT department, says he found the benefits "incredible." He says he first considered Alacritech's cards to eliminate bottlenecks caused by the Fast Ethernet cards on some Windows NT servers. Alacritech's approach seemed less expensive than moving to Gigabit Ethernet, he says, but he was reluctant to test it on a high-level production server. He tested it on a backup server and saw data transfer rates go from 200M to 350M bit/min.

Impressed, Halbardier installed Alacritech cards on the servers that were originally experiencing performance problems. It not only eliminated the bottlenecks, but he estimates that it also gave him better performance than he would have gotten by upgrading his entire network to Gigabit Ethernet -and for less than half the cost.

Holding Its Own

Halbardier says he sees equal benefits on the backup side, considering that disk capacity on the 110 servers he supports is growing at about 100% per year. Since "you can only back up so much information in a given 24-hour period," using $3,000 to $4,000 worth of Alacritech cards to back up data more quickly saves him more than $60,000, he says -- he would have had to spend that much on additional tape backup units and software.

Compared with standard network adapters, Alacritech cards showed an approximately 20% improvement in data transmission rates, says Ira Goodman, a technical support manager at Syncsort Inc., a backup-management software vendor in Woodcliff Lake, N.J.

Alacritech, which is just beginning to ship products and record revenue, faces major, well-funded competitors in Intel and 3Com and is limited by the fact that it supports only Windows NT 4.0.

Alacritech plans to deliver Windows 2000 and Linux support in the second quarter of next year. It's also planning to offer support for Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris, but it has no delivery date set.

But for now, it's alone in a promising market, with $22 million in funding and Boucher's reputation to keep it on the radar screens of IT managers.

The Buzz: State of the Market

Everyone's Getting Smart

For now, Alacritech is targeting the market for network interface cards only in servers running Windows NT, which the company estimates has an installed base of 30 million systems.

But then there's another, potentially massive market: Using Alacritech's cards to speed up data backup can make a big difference, when storage requirements at some companies are growing by as much as 100% per year.

The idea of off-loading functions to a network interface card has also occurred to Intel and 3Com. Both have already shifted some functions, such as encryption using the IPSec standard, to network interface cards, but the companies are more cautious about other parts of the TCP/IP protocol.

Intel Corp.

Hillsboro, Ore.

Intel claims that IT managers want cross-platform support as much as they want sheer throughput. For that reason, Intel off-loads a more limited part of TCP/IP to its cards than Alacritech does. But Intel's cards work not only with Windows NT 4.0 but also with Windows 2000, Solaris, Linux and Unixware, says Willem Wery, director of marketing for Intel's CPU prroducts.

Intel currently off-loads checksum functionality, which checks each unit of data to be sure it contains the correct number of bits. Intel will also support a new TCP off-load capability called TCP Segmentation, expected to be available for Windows 2000 by the middle of next year. This capability should ease CPU loads and boost the performance of Intel adapters by allowing the operating system to hand larger blocks of data, or frames, to network interface cards for transmission.

3Com Corp.

Santa Clara, Calif.

While off-loading the entire TCP/IP protocol stack from the main server CPU "is very valuable," 3Com currently has no products that do that, says Doug Moe, product manager for server network interface cards. 3Com is "currently investigating" how to off-load TCP/IP functions from the main server CPU, he says, and will support the checksum, TCP segmentation, transport and tunnel-mode encryption off-load capabilities in Windows 2000.

ITWorld DealPost: The best in tech deals and discounts.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon