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The LAN of opportunity

John Gillooly from Atomic Magazine in Australia has checked in and gives us his impressions on Gigabit networking and what PCI Express can do to improve the standard in the New Year.
By: TweakTown Staff | Editorials in Networking | Posted: Nov 10, 2003 5:00 am

My name is John Gillooly and I'm an alcoholic. By that I mean technology journalist, the terms are often synonymous. I'm the Technical Editor for a monthly Australian magazine called Atomic. We are a fairly different type of computer magazine in that we cater to the PC enthusiasts, overclockers, modders, gamers, technology buffs and the like.


In the course of my job I spend a lot of time dealing with technology companies and keeping a close eye on where the market is going, and in the course of that I end up spending a lot of time testing and providing feedback on products that we review in the magazine. Lately a lot of the product related questions I have been asked have revolved around whether mainboard manufacturers should bother with Gigabit Ethernet (GbE).


It is a curious question at first glance. Anyone who fits into the newly defined 'enthusiast' segment of the market should be leaping all over GbE. It offers speeds almost 10 times as fast as 10/100 Ethernet can and quite frankly, even though I can transfer files on my home network damn quickly over 10/100 I don't see why I need to wait that long.


While Wi-Fi is getting better now 802.11g is more than an ephemeral draft standard, it is a special use novelty in a desktop system. I mean, come on, why put up with a trickle of data that becomes a dribble anytime someone stands in the wrong place when a trusty length of CAT 5E can have the data zooming down at a rate that is actually faster than copying the data onto a USB key and walking it to the other PC. Heck, the one use of wireless that I wanted was for my living room PC, but I soon gave up trying to watch movies over the network with that glorified walkie talkie.


I want the speed boost that gigabit can bring, but still switches are inordinately expensive and mainboards sporting the technology are premium items.


So why hasn't GbE achieved more penetration into the home? The answer is simple, the PCI bus is a chaotic jam of traffic competing for bandwidth, which throttles GbE to the just-under-1000Mbit-on-a-good-day speed that it enjoys. This is why Intel developed the special Communications Streaming Architecture (CSA) technology on the i865 and i875 series of chipsets. When an Intel GbE controller is paired with these chipsets it can work at almost 2000Mbit. This is because CSA takes the GbE controller off the PCI bus and lets it talk to the Southbridge via an independent link.


This is useful but somewhat of a quick fix as it needs the end user to have a mainboard that uses a recent Intel chipset and an Intel GbE controller. So are we doomed to a lifetime of 10/100 speed over cables? Thankfully not.


The saviour for GbE is due to arrive mid next year in the form of PCI-Express. Now as far as new technologies go, this is the coolest in immediate sight. PCI-Express replaces the hub architecture of PCI with a switched one, which means no more nasty bus flooding. It is due to first appear with two uses, a large x16 PCI-Express slot will replace AGP as the graphic connection of choice, while a x1 PCI-Express slot should also appear, designed initially for attaching GbE controllers.


This then makes any mainboard using a PCI-Express attached GbE controller capable of approaching the 2000Mbit speed that is delivered by CSA (when asked during the recent Fall Intel Developers Forum in San Jose about what will happen to CSA post PCI-Express, the answer was that it would continue to exist in a different form).


It is then that the natural market forces can start coming into play and driving down the price of Gigabit switches. Because of its large install base it will be tough to replace 10/100 Ethernet as the dominant product, but if you can get something that delivers almost 20 times the speed then we are talking about the sort of bandwidth that then flows through to new uses for PCs in the home. It means that shunting digital media around becomes a big reality and us hardcore users can get that warm feeling of satisfaction that comes only when your PC can do something damn fast.


Gigabit Ethernet has everything going for it, backwards compatibility of hardware, the ability to use your current CAT 5E cabling and speed to burn. Once the glacial shift of the technology process finally puts PCI-Express into our desktops then the home networking fun will really get going. And then we can start talking about the exciting possibility of things like Gigabit Ethernet to our doors.


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