I’ve written before how to get a standard PCI dual NIC for a low, low price–but what about a PCIe dual NIC? PCI Express needs love too, of course.
It turns out it’s not hard to find a good, cheap PCIe dual NIC either.
Ebay to the rescue again. You really want an Intel or a Broadcom-based card. Intel and Broadcom give better performance and lower CPU overhead than Realtek-based cards. The brand name doesn’t matter much. An HP or Dell-branded card will work in other makes of computers just fine. I also wouldn’t expect any difference in quality. Odds are someone like Foxconn is making the boards for either company anyway.
I would look for a working pull, rather than a new card, to reduce the danger of counterfeits. The price will be a bit lower on a pull as well.
You may notice that some of these cards have a larger PCIe connector than what you find on many desktop boards. Most of the cards I see are x4-type cards. That’s OK. You can plug the card into an x16 slot if you have one open. If not, you can plug it into a x1 slot. The performance won’t be quite as good, but it will still outperform a standard PCI card, and it will probably outperform the Realtek chipset that’s on your motherboard too.
Broadcom cards tend to be a bit cheaper than Intel cards. I know more about Intel’s e1000 chipset than I know about Broadcom’s chips, but when I can get a dual Broadcom card for under $8, shipped, that’s a crazy bargain. That’s comparable to the price on a consumer-grade Realtek card, and Broadcom’s chipset is a commercial-grade offering. Even if it’s the second-best commercial grade offering, I’ll take that over a consumer-grade card.
The main caveat I can find with Broadcom chipsets is that TCP offloading causes problems with them, but all currently supported versions of Windows default to turning that setting off these days. Intel’s chips can have problems with TCP offloading as well, so I’m not sure I’d worry much about it.
Finding bargain-priced Intel-based dual NICs
All of the major server manufacturers sell Intel-based NICs. A Dell-branded card works just fine in any other machine. But if the listing just lists a Dell part number, it’s going to sell less quickly, and for less money, than a listing that states it’s Intel-based and includes the chipset. This link will help you find inexpensive Intel-based NICs.
I can usually find a dual-port Intel-based NIC for around $13. Sun cards can be bargains, just make sure it looks like the equivalent HP or Dell card. Sometimes Sun uses weird chipsets that don’t have drivers for every major operating system.