Windows Server pack punches up processing power

Microsoft's Scalable Networking Pack, released at WinHEC last week, offloads some server processing onto an adapter. It's one way to get more power out of Windows Server 2003.

Technology released by Microsoft last week to speed up Windows Server processing might not be as glamorous as Vista or Windows Longhorn beta 2, but it will be a lot more useful today to the average Windows administrator.

Last week at its Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Seattle, Microsoft made available the Scalable Networking Pack for Windows Server 2003. It's the first fruit of its Scalable Networking Initiative, which was launched exactly two years ago.

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The pack offloads CPU overhead and puts it on a main process adapter, freeing up the CPU on the server to do more. The technology itself is free, but it requires Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1 and a compatible single-port network adapter, which can range in cost from $299 up to $999, depending on the number of connections offloaded.

Current server stack operations are in server code. Removing them from the server and placing them in a card is certain to speed up server performance, said Michael Disabato, vice president and service director at Burton Group, a consulting firm in Midvale, Utah.

"Any server would be happy with this," Disabato said. "If you have a T3 or multiple T3s coming into your Web server, it's probably a good thing to get this offloaded from the server itself. If you have a database server, at some point it becomes a point of how fast the server can process interrupts," he said. "Get this loaded onto a card."

The three new technologies offered in the pack are TCP Chimney Offload, Receive Side Scaling (RSS) and Network Direct Memory Access (NetDMA). According to Microsoft, TCP Chimney Offload lets TCP/IP processing be offloaded to network adapters that can handle the TCP/IP processing in hardware.

RSS and netDMA are stateless offloads. RSS lets packets that are received by a network adapter be balanced across several CPUs. NetDMA allows for a DMA engine on the Peripheral Component Interconnect bus. The TCP/IP stack can use the DMA engine to copy data instead of interrupting the CPU to handle the copy operation, Microsoft said.

These add-on technologies will all eventually be part of Windows Longhorn Server, said Ian Hameroff, senior product manager at Microsoft. "It will be a core capability," Hameroff said. "In the same way that graphics port accelerators ushered in heavy graphics, we are doing the same thing with TCP/IP."

Microsoft is in the process of putting together some tools to help customers determine whether the Scalable Networking Pack is an appropriate option to diagnose if CPU overhead is caused by the networking overhead or some other factor.

The guidance will help identify which server will benefit the most, but all Windows server customers will see some benefit, Hameroff said. Reduction of CPU overhead can range from 20% to 100%.

Down the road, Windows Longhorn Server will incorporate these enhancements and add some extra management features.

Offloading processing from servers is also one way to reduce energy costs from servers. The question is just how much of the server workload is about generating new content versus delivering content. The shift is to deliver content, said Joe Gervais, director of marketing at Alacritech Inc., a manufacturer of data accelerators in San Jose, Calif.

"Managers are screaming about the heat," Gervais said. The network processing is very consuming. Using a TCP offload technology can offer big energy savings, he said.

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