Adaptec Unpacks NAC at Last

Ships Linux-only network accelerator card after months of delays. Can it catch up to Alacritech? UPDATED 8/19 3:30PM

August 19, 2003

4 Min Read
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After months of delays, Adaptec Inc. (Nasdaq: ADPT) has finally released its Gigabit Ethernet network accelerator card -- which it's calling a "NAC" -- designed to offload TCP/IP processing from server's host processors for network-intensive applications (see Adaptec Accelerates).

The company originally intended to launch the NAC in the spring of 2002, but it couldn't get the knack [ed. note: sorry] of spinning the silicon (see Adaptec Takes Whack at NAC). Production issues with its TCP Offload Engine (TOE) chip pushed out the delivery date to last fall, which then slipped into this summer. The company started shipping its iSCSI adapter, which uses the same TOE chip, in April (see Adaptec Shipping iSCSI).

Now, as late as it may be, Adaptec's NAC is here -- and the company says it's ready to burn rubber. It claims the Network Accelerator 7711 provides throughput up to 250 MByte/s, depending on the application, and is well suited for speeding up file transfers, database clusters, and backup and restore operations.

"The difference between a NIC [network interface card] and a NAC is that NICs don't scale," says Vijay Ramaswamy, group manager of product marketing in the storage networking group. "Two NACs give you a 100 percent increase in performance."

However, the Adaptec NAC currently works only with the Red Hat Linux operating systems -- users with other OS platforms are out of luck with this NAC. Adaptec won't say exactly when it will have Windows support for the NAC, but expects it will be sometime in 2004.In the meantime, Adaptec will still be at a disadvantage to the only other player in this specialized segment -- Alacritech Inc. -- which Adaptec is trailing by almost two years. Alacritech, which provides Windows drivers, has been offering a similar Gigabit Ethernet offload card since October 2001 and has scoped out various vertical niches along the way (see Alacritech Hustles Digital Media Firms, Win2003 Zooms on Alacritech, Alacritech Turns to Linux, Compaq, Alacritech: We Kick NAS, and Alacritech Releases Gig-E SAN NICs).

It should be noted, however, that Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) has not certified the TCP offload portion of any TOE-based adapters to date. "A true TOE hardware offload HBA completely replaces the TCP stack within Windows... [Microsoft] will relinquish control of the TCP stack only under Microsoft's own terms," notes Charlie Kraus, director of marketing and product management at LSI Logic Corp. (NYSE: LSI). Microsoft has initiated the Chimney Offload Architecture to let third-party vendors develop Windows-compatible TOEs -- a program Adaptec is participating in (see Adaptec Demos TCP/IP Offload Card and TOE Vendors Flock to Microsoft).

Adaptec insists its NAC is superior to Alacritech's because the Adaptec TOE handles all the network processing in silicon; Alacritech, by contrast, splits off some of those functions in host-based software. "From a product perspective, we do a complete offload on the chip," Ramaswamy says.

Joe Gervais, Alacritech's director of product marketing, says the company still has the fastest and most efficient network accelerator card on the market. "We welcome any independent tests of our product against competitive products to determine functionality and performance," he says.

But the market for NACs could remain just a tiny slice of the pie until 10-Gig Ethernet becomes more widely deployed, analysts say. "Server processing speeds don't go up by factors of ten, so when you go to 10-Gig Ethernet you would expect there to be a greater need for this," says James Opfer, VP of research in Gartner Inc.'s storage group.For now, Adaptec says it's targeting the high-performance computing (HPC) market and vertical industries including oil and gas exploration, financial services, life sciences, and defense. It has announced one customer for the product: The Center for Biomolecular Science & Engineering at the University of California at Santa Cruz, which is using the NAC to accelerate the file transfer operations among clustered servers that are running a genome simulation.

Adaptec's NACs will carry suggested retail prices of $995 for one with a fiber interface and $895 for a copper interface. They're available now through distributors and resellers, including Arrow Electronics Inc. (NYSE: ARW), Ingram Micro Inc. (NYSE: IM), and Tech Data Corp. (Nasdaq: TECD).

Todd Spangler, US Editor, Byte and Switch

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