Squeeze Your Gigabit NIC for Top Performance

Gigabit network cards are becoming more and more common, but getting maximum speed depends on a the right mix of hardware, software, and finesse. Here's how to squeeze top performance out of your gigabit gear using Linux, FreeBSD, and Windows.

By Charlie Schluting | Posted Feb 24, 2007
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Many new workstations and servers are coming with integrated gigabit (define) network cards, but quite a few people soon discover that they can't transfer data much faster than they did with 100 Mb/s network cards. Multiple factors can affect your ability to transfer at higher speeds, and most of them revolve around operating system settings. In this article we will discuss the necessary steps to make your new gigabit-enabled server obtain close to gigabit speeds in Linux, FreeBSD, and Windows.

Hardware Considerations

First and foremost we must realize that there are hardware limitations to consider. Just because someone throws a gigabit network card in a server doesn't mean the hardware can keep up.

Network cards are normally connected to the PCI bus bus via a free PCI slot. In older workstation and non server-class motherboards the PCI slots are normally 32 bit, 33MHz. This means they can transfer at speeds of 133MB/s. Since the bus is shared between many parts of the computer, it's realistically limited to around 80MB/s in the best case.

Gigabit network cards provide speeds of 1000Mb/s, or 125MB/s. If the PCI bus is only capable of 80MB/s this is a major limiting factor for gigabit network cards. The math works out to 640Mb/s, which is really quite a bit faster than most gigabit network card installations, but remember this is probably the best-case scenario.

If there are other hungry data-loving PCI cards in the server, you'll likely see much less throughput. The only solution for overcoming this bottleneck is to purchase a motherboard with a 66MHz PCI slot, which can do 266MB/s. Also, the new 64 bit PCI slots are capable of 532MB/s on a 66MHz bus. These are beginning to come standard on all server-class motherboards.

Assuming we're using decent hardware that can keep up with the data rates necessary for gigabit, there is now another obstacle — the operating system. For testing, we used two identical servers: Intel Server motherboards, Pentium 4 3.0 GHz, 1GB RAM, integrated 10/100/1000 Intel network card. One was running Gentoo Linux with a 2.6 SMP (define) kernel, and the other is FreeBSD 5.3 with an SMP kernel to take advantage of the Pentium 4's HyperThreading capabilities. We were lucky to have a gigabit capable switch, but the same results could be accomplished by connecting both servers directly to each other.

Software Considerations

For testing speeds between two servers, we don't want to use FTP or anything that will fetch data from disk. Memory to memory transfers are a much better test, and many tools exist to do this. For our tests, we used 'ttcp'(http://www.pcausa.com/Utilities/pcattcp.htm).

The first test between these two servers was not pretty. The maximum rate was around 230 Mb/s: about two times as fast as a 100Mb/s network card. This was an improvement, but far from optimal. In actuality, most people will see even worse performance out of the box. However, with a few minor setting changes, we quickly realized major speed improvements — more than a threefold improvement over the initial test.

Many people recommend setting the MTU of your network interface larger. This basically means telling the network card to send a larger Ethernet frame. While this may be useful when connecting two hosts directly together, it becomes less useful when connecting through a switch that doesn't support larger MTUs. At any rate, this isn't necessary. 900Mb/s can be attained at the normal 1500 byte MTU setting.

For attaining maximum throughput, the most important options involve TCP window sizes. The TCP window controls the flow of data, and is negotiated during the start of a TCP connection. Using too small of a size will result in slowness, since TCP can only use the smaller of the two end system's capabilities. It is quite a bit more complex than this, but here's the information you really need to know.

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