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TECHNOLOGY NEWS

Ethernet

The fast lane for the home network: the value of gigabit card


Verena Wolff | May 4, 2004

MUNICH — Networks exist because two or more computers need to communicate with each other, particularly if a printer or Internet access is to be shared between them.

This is just as true in the home as it is at the office. The wireless version, WLAN, is a home network workhorse, as well as a solid seller.

Yet a cable connection using the Ethernet standard is cheaper.

It offers a significantly higher data transfer rate than other currently available consumer network technologies.

The major issue for those setting up such a network is whether to go with a Fast Ethernet or a super-quick Gigabit card. "For a traditional home network, you can get by with a so-called Fast Ethernet card," says Markus Bauer from Munich-based computer magazine "PC Professionell."

Pure Ethernet cards with a data transfer rates of 10 Megabit per second (MBit/s) are already obsolete. Fast Ethernet, the current standard, offers 100 MBit/s. A newer alternative is the Gigabit Ethernet card. This allows for up to 1000 MBit/s to be sent from one computer to another over a cable.

"You will need a correspondingly quick storage media that can handle this bandwidth," explains Christian Anderka from chip maker Intel. It does no good in the end "to have a fat fire hose attached to a trickling mountain stream." For consumers who surf the Internet exclusively at DSL tempo, the Gigabit cards are overkill.

"You only need the 100 Mbit ones," says Bauer.

Even when computer gamers link their computers together for so- called LAN parties, allowing multiple players to go head-to-head on a single game, a Gigabit card isn't needed. This kind of broadband is primarily of value for users who frequently use their computer for multimedia applications.

"Those looking to send a film from a digital video camera from one computer to the other will be well served by a Gigabit card," Anderka says. Network card makers like 3Com and D-Link recommend installing the quicker cards even if the speed gains will only be realized down the road.

"You don't buy a car that can only accelerate up to the speed you want to drive today," a spokesman for 3Com reminds. Today's standard computers are usually Gigabit-technology ready.

Nevertheless, the computer architecture found on most chips is hitting its limits for broadband expansion.

Intel is approaching the problem from two sides. On the one side, Anderka has announced new platforms that support the so-called PCI Express standard, thereby offer sufficient bandwidth for Gigabit Ethernet on the main board.

The firm has also begun offering so-called CSA (Communication Streaming Architecture) chip sets, which allow a quick, dedicated interface to the main board for the network card.

When buying a completely new computer, the decision between Fast and Gigabit Ethernet makes very little difference in price, Anderka says.

When retrofitting a card, the price difference is more noticeable. A Gigabit network card costs almost twice as much as a traditional Ethernet card, which can be had for as little as ten dollars.

There are also costs for switches and cables to connect the computers. Those who settle on the quicker card will also need to exchange any cables and switches that cannot handle the larger stream of data.

When putting in a new network, Markus Bauer reminds, it is worth it to think of the future when choosing cables. "You should buy the top-line product, category 6 or 7," the expert says. The cables cost only a few cents more per metre.

"You'll spare yourself the frustration of switching again if and when you move up to a card with a higher data throughput." The question remains as to whether the new technology can fulfill its full potential on a home network. "The network is often faster than the transfer rates for older hard drives - modern hard drives are roughly as quick as Gigabit Ethernet," Bauer says.

The network will only rarely be fully utilized. The user should also make sure that the server is Gigabit ready, although the speed will only seldom be provided to the individually attached computers. –Sapa-DPA