AUSTIN, Texas Gigabit Ethernet is poised to move into mainstream servers this year. A low-cost network interface card just announced by 3Com Corp. and a matching price cut by Intel Corp. on its own NIC signal a price war in the sector, even as an upcoming Intel single-chip Gigabit Ethernet controller appears primed to add fuel to the fire.
The net result: Gigabit network interface cards (NICs) that went for $400 to $700 just a few months ago are now priced at $219 from both vendors, the two largest players by far in the interface card market.
The competition will stimulate the adoption of Gigabit Ethernet in perhaps half of all servers shipped by this time next year, said Joel Conover, senior enterprise infrastructure analyst at Current Analysis (Sterling, Va.). "At these price points, it will be very enticing to put Gigabit Ethernet in almost every server and workstation. 3Com is driving the market by setting a really low price point" for Gigabit Ethernet over Category 5 copper cabling, Conover said.
Though the $219 price tag is still two to three times more expensive than a Fast Ethernet NIC, the tenfold increase in bandwidth is proving attractive to customers seeking to resolve bottlenecks in the enterprise, he added.
The single-chip controller forthcoming from Intel will add to the Gigabit Ethernet surge, said Scott McLaughlin, a manager at Intel's networking operations in Oregon. "What we found in Fast Ethernet is that when we got to a single chip, the market took off," McLaughlin said. Also, a single-chip implementation makes it possible to add Gigabit Ethernet directly on the motherboard, he added, a technology Intel has dubbed "LAN-on-motherboard."
The 82544EI controller from Intel is sampling now, and a NIC based upon it is expected to ship late in the second quarter or early in the third, shortly after the 82544EI moves into volume production, McLaughlin said.
3Com's NIC, the 3C996-T, is shipping now. Early this month, Intel's LAN access division bombed the price of its existing NIC by 45 percent, matching 3Com's price.
The rivalry between Intel and 3Com, which together hold roughly 80 percent of the Ethernet NIC business, is juicing the market, said analyst Conover. Over the next two years, he said, probably 80 percent of servers will include one or more Gigabit Ethernet NICs, and so will 10 to 15 percent of the workstations used in offices and engineering groups.
After that come desktops, said David Borison, product-line manager in 3Com's server connectivity division, who said he expects the desktop market to adopt Gigabit Ethernet beginning in 2003.
A huge opportunity
That shift will happen, said Borison, as corporations realize that the second or two it might take an employee to open an e-mail or file, multiplied by hundreds of thousands of instances in a large work force, is an expensive drag on productivity. Fiber in the backbone moves the networking bottleneck to the server and the desktop, making Gigabit Ethernet over copper a huge market opportunity, he said.
Both the 3Com card and the forthcoming Intel NIC based on the 8254EI support the PCI-X bus standard at 133 MHz.
The network interface card from 3Com (Santa Clara, Calif.) is the first fruit of two deals: its alliance with Broadcom Corp. and its acquisition of the NIC technology of Alteon Corp. The card pairs a Broadcom physical-layer (PHY) IC, the BCM 5401, with a media-access controller designed by 3Com using Alteon intellectual property.
Late last year, Nortel Networks bought Alteon, which held significant market share in the Gigabit Ethernet market, was acquired by Nortel Networks, which then sold its NIC intellectual property (IP) to 3Com. The deal allowed Nortel to focus on the higher-margin Gigabit switch market, leaving the higher-volume NIC business to 3Com. The deal did not involve a transfer of engineers, and was limited to design IP.
Borison said 3Com engineers quickly combined the design they built around their own and Alteon technology with IP from Broadcom. That company last year agreed to cross-license patents and cooperate in the Gigabit Ethernet market with 3Com.
Broadcom also helped by offering process-technology expertise that allowed the MAC to quickly ramp on an 0.18-micron process at foundry Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.
Asked if the partners planned a single-chip product, Borison said, "we [3Com and Broadcom] have defined a road map going out over the next three years." At some point, a single-chip version will ship on TSMC's 0.13-micron mixed-signal process, where Broadcom is an early customer, he indicated.
"Broadcom helped us get the MAC out faster than we could have on our own," Borison said. As for the Alteon IP, "We closed the Alteon NIC deal with Nortel on Dec. 15 and got the MAC out very quickly. Demand is such that we are backed up with orders but expect to catch up in a couple of weeks."
"3Com's deal with Broadcom definitely was a contributor," said Conover, the Current Analysis analyst. "It allowed 3Com to deliver a higher value-add product at a better price point."
"This is the first Gigabit Ethernet NIC to support jumbo frames, which can handle 9,000 bytes instead of the normal 1,500-byte Ethernet frames," Borison said. "With jumbo frames, the NIC can handle 950 Mbits/second, which we believe is 20 percent faster than the competition."
Horn to blow
Intel, for its part, has its own horn to blow: a single-chip Gigabit Ethernet controller that places a Marvell Corp. PHY on the same die with Intel's newest MAC. Like 3Com's NIC, Intel's single-chip controller also will support jumbo frames.
Because the chip itself is small, McLaughlin said the NIC that holds it will be small enough to fit into a 1U (2.5-inch-deep) rack-mounted server.
Borison said 3Com, too, "is working very hard" to bring out a NIC that will fit the 1U server market. Both the 3Com product and the upcoming Intel controller and NIC feature software support aimed at the server market.