Bigfoot Networks Killer NIC Review
I can honestly tell you that I never thought I would be writing a review of a network card. In my seven years of reviewing hardware for PC Perspective (and Amdmb.com), with all the CPUs, video cards and motherboards, there are some items I just thought were as good as they got. USB, hard drives and network cards all seemed to just "be there" and worked the way they were supposed to work. As USB 2.0 implementations varried from chipset to chipset and as Western Digital unvieled their 10,000 RPM Raptor drives the component performance was improved. And it looks like we might finally have seen an enthusiast-based networking advancement as well.
What if you could replace your standard on-board Gigabit Ethernet with a network card that promised lower pings, higher frame rates in your games and some very interesting expansion possibilities, would you be interested? What if that card was $250? I'll try to help you decide if the new Bigfoot Networks Killer NIC is for you.
A new company started in 2005, Bigfoot Networks is a new comer to the world of hardware and enthusiasts. For a quick history, I'll quote the Bigfoot Networks website:
Harlan "Tytus" Beverly was sick of playing games online and suffering from Lag. He hated losing due to circumstances out of his control. As a network architect, Harlan had the skills and expertise to research where Lag was occurring and began to talk to game developers on ways Lag could be fought. The fruits of his work became the foundation for LLR Technology.
While in business school at the University of Texas, Harlan teamed up with Bob Grim and Mike Cubbage to found Bigfoot Networks. Together they wrote an award winning business plan that won prizes in the Fortune Magazine New Venture contest, the University of Texas MOOT CORP Competition, San Diego State's Venture Challenge, and the Carnegie Mellon competition.
The prize money combined with Angel investment allowed Harlan to further refine the technology and for Bigfoot Networks to build its first prototype, which was critical in securing a $4MM investment from Venio Capital Partners in late 2005.
Financially secure, Bigfoot Networks has now launched full throttle on its mission to fight Lag and provide gamers with technology that can dramatically improve the performance of their gaming systems. Stay tuned for more details on its upcoming product launch (this summer), and other ways that Bigfoot Networks is going to make gaming more fun.
Their goals are lofty: "fight lag" and to "improve gaming system performance" and achieving them isn't easy, otherwise someone else would have done it by now.
As we saw when AGEIA introduced the world's first dedicate physics processor, Bigfoot is giving the world a new acronym to learn; the NPU or network processing unit. The goal of such a processor is simple: to offload the networking processing that would usually be left to the main CPU, allowing it instead to work on other game processing. In theory, this makes perfect sense and we can see how increased frame rates (more power for the CPU to use on the game) could be possible.
But another key to the Killer NIC technology is the ability to bypass the typical Windows networking stack. The Killer NIC software replaces the majority of the software stack and offers up instant "ready flags" that can answer the game software's requests for networking data faster than Windows could provide it. We'll explain more on this later in the review, but the diagram above is a high level representation of what Bigfoot Networks is trying to do. The flow chart represents typical game code and you can see that the Killer NIC card replaces much of the networking logic and is able to store the "gamer's state" locally instead of in main system memory.
The NPU from Bigfoot Networks is located on a PCI-based add-in card seen here. The hardware on the card consists of a 400 MHz off the shelf Power PC core that runs an optimized version of embedded Linux to handle the networking code as required. A single USB 2.0 port is located on the rear of the card to provide some advanced accessibility features that we'll look into later in the review. The heatsink is in a unique "K" shape and looks good as well as being completely passive adding no noise to your system. A couple of memory chips supply a total of 64MB of DDR memory to support the NPU and hold the current state of the networking stack.
Click to Enlarge
Finally, here is a table of some claimed performance changes when using a Killer NIC; there are no other system specs listed here so we'll have to wait for our own benchmarks later in the review for the full report. In the table, blue represents a positive change for Bigfoot Networks, green neutral and red for negative.