Flaky networking? Suspect cheap NICs

Flaky networking? Suspect cheap NICs

It was 1998. I was getting ready to network my two PCs, so I asked my friendly neighborhood networking professional what to buy. He didn’t hesitate. “Intel or 3Com,” he said. “Cheap NICs will talk, but they’ll start acting flaky after a while, dropping packets in the middle of transfers, stuff like that.”

I couldn’t afford 3Com or Intel at the time, so I bought a cheap “SOHOware” brand bundle that included two 10/100 NICs, a hub, and cables for around $150. A comparable first-tier setup would have run me twice that. The hub died after a couple of years. The cards fared better. “After a while” took 11 years or so to come, and I finally got sick enough of it to retire my last one.

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I hate to admit it, but Intel’s NIC drivers are awfully nice

So we had some servers that were acting squirrelly on the network, refusing to talk to some servers but not others, dropping off entirely, etc. One of my coworkers noticed the servers acting badly were running different versions of the NIC driver than the ones that were behaving.

I found some other servers that had 10/100 cards in them that were using drivers that dated back to the Clinton administration.Here’s the nice thing. Intel keeps drivers available, and updates them on a pretty regular basis. Even those old 10/100 NICs had drivers available that were dated 2007. And they were Windows 2000 compatible, even!

Here’s the even nicer thing. We updated them hot, and they didn’t require a reboot. In a couple of cases, we even updated them remotely, via Terminal Services, and somehow didn’t lose our connection. (Don’t count on that always working.)

I always thought Intel NICs were overrated. Sure, given a choice between Intel and, say, D-Link, it’s no contest. But Intel vs. Broadcom or 3Com? The one guy qualified to comment on that (Linux NIC driver author Donald Becker) has no opinion. But I’ve never heard of being able to change a NIC driver in Windows and just keep on trucking along.

Chalk one up for Intel.

Integrated components vs discrete

Integrated components vs discrete is an old argument. I distinctly remember setting up a server for a new big-shot in 2004. I opened the server up to put memory in, and found its PCI slots filled with cards that duplicated all of the on-board components.

I asked my boss about this, and he said the guy had insisted on doing this, because “discrete components are better.”

I’ve been making jokes at the guy’s expense ever since.

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