Intel network chips get up to speed

Network interface chips coming from Intel are designed for multicore chips and virtualization

Intel later this year will help server network interfaces take advantage of the major recent advances in data centers: multiprocessor systems, multicore processors and virtualization.

The company unveiled at Cisco Systems's Networkers user conference a pair of chips for server network cards or motherboards. The Intel 82598 10-Gigabit Ethernet Controller is set for production in September and the 82575EB Gigabit Ethernet Controller is shipping now to system and component vendors. The company did not disclose pricing.

New and emerging technologies are boosting data-center processing power and helping enterprises take advantage of the systems they've invested in, but network connections are still catching up. They have become the bottlenecks of new, faster data centers, said Sunil Ahluwalia, a product line manager in Intel's LAN access division. The chips introduced Monday include multiple queues, virtualization capability, packet prioritization and new storage networking features to break that bottleneck.

For example, until now, the chips Intel makes to handle communication between servers and storage or the LAN have essentially just had one path in and out of the system. Sorting out which packet goes to which processor or core, for example, has been a job for the CPU itself, and a strenuous one, Ahluwalia said: It can take all of the CPU's processing power at times.

The new chips have multiple queues and software for placing packets in those queues. With 32 transmitting and 64 receiving queues per port, the 10-Gigabit chip can move packets in and out of all the server's processors and cores, balancing the workload and taking advantage of the server's power, Ahluwalia said. The Gigabit Ethernet chip has four transmitting and receiving queues per port. Using the queuing system, the chips can also give certain packets priority so important functions can take place quickly over the network.

With the chips, Intel also introduced Virtual Machine Device Queues (VMDQ) to allocate packets to different virtual machines on a server. For this feature to work, virtualization software vendors will have to make their software work with VMDQ. Intel is working on this with VMWare, XenSource and Microsoft, though it does not expect those vendors to have compatibility in place by September, said Steve Schultz, an Intel product marketing manager.

In addition, the controller chips can work natively with iSCSI (Internet Small Computer System Interface) storage networks. The 10-Gigabit card also has some features designed for use with emerging FCOE (Fibre Channel Over Ethernet) technology, Ahluwalia said. An FCOE standard is still being worked out, and the chips don't have FCOE itself, Intel said.

With the 10-Gigabit controller, Intel upgrade from a PCI-X bus to the faster PCI Express bus for the first time on a 10-Gigabit Ethernet product. With the new performance features to offload tasks from server CPUs, the chip will be able to achieve full 10G bps (bit-per-second) throughput while taking up on 10 percent of CPU cycles, Ahluwalia said.

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