Need a good, cheap dual gigabit NIC? I have just the thing.

If you need gigabit ports for your home server or router project and you’re short on available expansion slots, I have just the thing. Home sysadmins have known for a while that you can get cheap PCI-X Intel NICs and run them in PCI mode, but you may not know that you can find the very same thing by searching Ebay for HP 7170 and it’s usually cheaper. It’s not rare to find them for $7, shipped.

These Intel NICs are high quality, but a bit outmoded. They were common in servers 5-10 years ago, but current servers generally use PCIe, so there’s a glut of these older PCI-X cards on the market now that these older servers are getting retired and parted out. And if you have an older board that you want to run as a server or router, these cards are perfect–as long as they fit. If there are components on the motherboard that block front of the card, you can use a PCI riser cable to move the card to an area in the case where the card has enough clearance, as most cases have more slots than the motherboard does.

I do recommend these cards over the cheap Realtek-based cards. I hate to sound like an Intel shill, but the driver support for these Intel chipsets is better, and the chips themselves are more reliable. In most cases, they take more of the load off the CPU as well. Realtek support can be a bit hit or miss, especially once you get outside Windows and Linux, but these Intel cards will work with just about anything. And while the Realtek cards were designed to hit a low price point, the Intel cards were designed to run 24×7 for years at a time.

When the Intel card cost $200 and the Realtek cost $15, I could understand buying the Realtek. But now that the Intel costs $7 and the Realtek costs $4, the Intel makes a lot more sense.

If you need PCIe, either for performance reasons or due to the lack of old-school PCI slots, secondhand dual PCIe NICs are widely available too. But since demand is higher, the price will be correspondingly higher too, though it’s certainly possible to pick up a dual Intel PCIe NIC (or a Broadcom, for that matter) for under $20. That’s still a more than reasonable price, while $7 for PCI-X cards is a steal. There’s nothing wrong with Broadcom–they have good performance and have good driver support. They just don’t have Intel’s name recognition.

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