PCI WAN cards
The need to join segments of a wide area network (WAN) together, or to connect a LAN to the Internet, is often left up to a router. Routers are expensive devices, often need updating with software for blocking hacker attempts, and tend to be a little troublesome when multiple protocols are in use. Several companies think the best solution to these problems is to replace the router with a PC and dedicated WAN card. We test three of those cards here.
All of these cards are designed to allow a standard PC (running several different operating systems) to replace a dedicated router. All three cards permit WAN connectivity, either using one or two cards, and can perform all the protocol translations and connectivity manipulations necessary to join two WAN segments together. By avoiding as dedicated router, network topologies become cleaner and the overall cost is usually lower. All three WAN cards also allow software to reside on the PC to handle firewall tasks, for example.
To test the three WAN cards from Cyclades, Eicon and Sangoma (SBE and Radisys also manufacture WAN cards but both refused to participate in the tests) we installed each card in a dedicated Linux machine. The machines were all 700MHz Pentium IIIs with 256MB RAM, and we tried several versions of Linux all with equal success. The Cyclades and Eicon cards were used to join two WAN segments together, while the Sangoma card was partnered with another card to join segments (the Sangoma card has only one connection). We tried using several protocols over the network segments, as well as standard lines such as T1 and ISDN connections to the Internet.
All three cards were installed under Linux following the manufacturer’s instructions. Due to a short review cycle would could not test the three cards head to head for performance, but since the three use different connection methods the tests would have been relatively meaningless anyway.
The Cyclades PC300/TE2 is a dual-headed PCI WAN connectivity board. The version we tested has, as the name implies, two connections to Wan segments and can act as a router inside a PC. Although the company bills the Cyclades PC300/TE2 as “cost effective”, it is not inexpensive compared to other cards. Cyclades intends the PC300 to replace existing or future routers in a network. The board has 256kB RAM resident, with a dedicated Hitachi serial controller to offload the server a little.
The Cyclades PC300/TE2 is a standard sized PCI card. The backplane has two RJ45 connectors and the company includes two RJ45 cables. Two diskettes complete the package for the Linux version, one as a diagnostic boot disk and the other with drivers and support software. There are no drivers other than Linux for the Cyclades PC300/TE2.
Installing the Cyclades PC300/TE2 is simple, plugging the board in and then rebooting. The board is plug-and-play compatible, although our Linux test setups didn’t recognize it every time. Updated drivers are available from the Cyclades web site, as is installation information. The included documentation spends a lot of time promoting the card and the company, as well as showing pinouts for connectors, but skips installation and configuration issues entirely! The README files on the diskettes are the primary source of information.
Installation of the drivers and configuration of the Cyclades PC300/TE2 are not troublesome for anyone who’s familiar with Linux, but there will be several stumbling blocks for non-experienced users. We asked one newcomer to Linux in our office to try installing both this and the Sangoma card, and in both cases the frustration level rose quickly. Only the Eicon board passed this user’s beginning administration skill tests.
In use the Cyclades PC300/TE2 behaved well, although the interface through Linux to the configuration and diagnostic routines is a little less than we would have hoped for. Still, the Cyclades PC300/TE2 is a popular board for routing under Linux and the performance shows why. Once properly set up, the Cyclades PC300/TE2 can be left and forgotten.
Eicon EiconCard S94
Eicon’s EiconCard S94 is a PCI multi-protocol WAN card designed primarily for branch office LAN application servers. The EiconCard S94 sports two Very High Speed Interface (VHSI) ports which can each support line speeds up to 2Mbps for use with T1 or E1 lines (or anything up to that speed). The design of the EiconCard S94 allows for automatic detection of the cable being used, while the on-board 33MHZ Motorola 68360 CPU offloads the server from most of the low-level tasks necessary to handle network protocols. The card has 2MB RAM and 1MB of flash memory. The EiconCard S94 supports Eicon’s Connections software package.
The EiconCard S94 is a regular size PCI card. The backplane has two VHSI 36-pin high-density connectors to which the external WAN links are made. Cables for the connectors are not included with the card itself and must be either ordered or made to suit the connection types (wiring diagrams are included in the documentation). The EiconCard S94 can handle most standard connection types including V.24, V.35, EIA-530, V.36/RS-449 and X.21. Since the card has two connectors, two different connection types can be used and managed by the board at the same time allowing for WAN segment connectivity through the EiconCard S94. Documentation that accompanies the EiconCard S94 is limited to a small pamphlet that describes installation and wiring. Eicon assumes, apparently, that you will also invest in their control software (we had a copy of both UNIX and Windows Connections available from a previous review).
Installing the EiconCard S94 was simple: plug it in and power up the machine. Eicon’s Connections software or the software off an included diskette can be used to test the board and verify the connection integrity. Configuring the board took only a few minutes, then the system was ready to use. The board supports both internal and external clocking (DTE or DCE) as well as split (transmit internal, receive external). Standard WAN network protocols are all supported (X.25, Frame Relay, PPP, SDLC, and HDLC).
In testing the EiconCard S94 performed well. Support under all the major operating systems (including Linux) is good, and we found the board handled our test environments with aplomb. Perhaps the most noticeable thing about the EiconCard S94 is that it is not noticed. The board installs and configures quickly and then simply works. We checked the diagnostics software a few times to monitor the board conditions, but otherwise the EiconCard S94 kept our two segments humming along. Performance was excellent and non-existant administrative overhead was welcome.
Sangoma Wanpipe S5141
The Sangoma Wanpipe S5141 is a single port PCI WAN card designed to support traffic up to 4Mbps using T1 lines, or some slower lines as well. There are several versions of the Wanpipe S5141 available which tailor the connectivity to specific configurations. Sangoma pitches its Wanpipe S5141 as available for any operating system, although we only tried it under Linux.
The Wanpipe S5141 is a PCI card, average length, with an RJ45 connector on the backplane. An RJ45 cable is included in the package, as is a .PDF document with installation instructions. The document is a little on the poorly written side. No printed documentation accompanies the package (shame!). To obtain drivers for the Wanpipe S5141 you need to visit the company Web site and download, in our case, the Linux .tgz files. There’s no fancy setup procedure: you do everything manually and with the aid of a few shell scripts. You’ll also need a C compiler installed to handle the make routines. It’s all reasonable for someone who has experience with Linux and its programming environments, but a newcomer will be easily overwhelmed and wonder why better routines couldn’t be developed.
Configuring the Wanpipe S5141 is not trivial, either. You need to go through the make file for the proper environment, answering Y or N to a bunch of questions, and then recompile the kernel. Again, this is fine for veterans but novices will be lost in some parts. Making changes to the environment can be done through a character-based command line interface, again with a ton of switches and options, and again not very user friendly. All of the information you need is in the Wanpipe S5141 documentation, but it harkens back to the days two decades ago when command line was the only way to handle hardware and configuration options. A better interface would greatly improve this product.
Despite the hassles of installing and configuring the Wanpipe S5141, the product worked well in our test machine. We couldn’t get 4Mbps out of our connections to the Wanpipe S5141, but then most installations wouldn’t be able to reach these numbers, either. We couldn’t perform segment to segment connections because the Wanpipe S5141 is a single port card, but we did let it run both as a dedicated router on our network as well as in conjunction with some other network cards, acting as a bridge between two segments. Sangoma’s real claim to fame in this trio is its price and Linux support. While the price is reasonable compared to stand-alone routers, the Linux support could be enhanced.
The three boards we tested all have slightly different configurations making head-to-head comparisons impossible. We could judge the three on a number of factors, though, including installation and configuration ease, ease of monitoring and administration, and role as a router in the WAN. Of the three boards, the Eiconcard stood out in all three categories, offering good software (as an add-on), easy installation and configuration, as well as solid performance. All three boards performed well, but the Eiconcard seemed more flexible and took more of the load off the host CPU thanks to its fast onboard processor and good complement of RAM. For these reasons, the Eiconcard gets our Top of the World award. All three products do well at replacing a dedicated router in a network.
Are these boards a good replacement for dedicated routers? Most definitely. The routers the three replaced were units costly three times as much as the boards, and the performance was on a par. Some administrators like the idea of dedicated routers in a rack, others would like to free up the space for other equipment. These three systems will allow you to replace a router with a Linux PC, even if it is not dedicated to the routing task, and not suffer a performance hit because of the replacement.
If there was a disappointment in this roundup it was the generally poor lack of documentation and Linux support in all three products, but especially the Sangoma board. Forcing a user to read on-line manuals and download drivers is fine for technically savvy users, but not for anyone else. The cost of providing drivers and a printed document is trivial compared to the cost of these systems.
41829 Albrae Street
Fremont, California 94538
888 CYCLADES or (800) 882-9252
(510) 770-0355 fax
Summary: Somewhat expensive board with dual T1 heads, excellent performance and flawless behavior under Linux.
2155 Chenault Drive
Carrollton, TX 75006
(972) 417-5600 fax
Summary: Flexible, fast, configurable board requiring good support software (such as Eicon’s). Very good Linux support.
50 Mcintosh Drive
Summary: Reasonably priced single-connector WAN board, ideally designed as a router. Awkward installation and configuration routines under Linux.