CES 2010: Interview with Bigfoot Networks’ John Drewry

During CES 2010, I met with John Drewry, Killer NIC maker Bigfoot Networks‘ vice president of marketing.

For those unfamiliar with the Killer NIC and its noble purpose, an perhaps lengthy introduction and explanation is due. The Killer NIC provides increased performance for online gaming via a network interface card (NIC) onto which Windows can offload network communications. In layman’s terms, it’s to networking what a video card is for graphics: the CPU in a system could handle the graphics or network communications, but a specialized processor can do it much faster. Whereas a video is often called a graphics processing unit (GPU), the Killer NIC can be called an NPU, a network processing unit.

However, this comparison fails to a degree. Network operations such as sending and receiving data are not computationally intensive, as graphics calculations are. Rather, network operations are interrupt-intensive, meaning that the OS has to temporarily stop what it’s doing in order to process incoming and outgoing information. When it stops, it obviously can’t be generating frames in a video game, so the game’s framerate drops. This is virtually unnoticeable to the user because it’s done very, very quickly thousands of times per second.

A normal NIC relies on the CPU to perform the calculations and assemble the data necessary to communicate via the network. In the Killer NIC system, a specialized driver and software offload Windows’ network communications (called the TCP/IP stack) onto the Killer NIC, which is actually running a tiny, low power Linux computer on it. Once the network information–called packets–reaches the Killer NIC, the efficiency of Linux and Bigfoot Networks’ tweaks to how it runs on the Killer NIC take over, providing a more efficient processing of packets and the option of prioritizing certain packets.

In short, the Killer NIC NPU relieves the CPU of its duty to process networking information as much as possible by simply bypassing it.

The original Killer NIC exposed the Linux system on the card to Windows in an interactive way. Users were able to access the Linux system and run applications on it. There’s quite a community built-up around these applications, called FNApps, but the most recent revision of the Killer NIC, the Killer Xeno Pro, does not have an SDK available and Bigfoot does not plan on releasing one. It chose to deemphasize this functionality because these apps detracted from processing power of the Killer NIC, adversely affecting performance, diminishing the effectiveness, and rendering the point of the Killer NIC moot.

The Killer Xeno Pro was introduced last summer with much fanfare. It was the first new product from Killer NIC in several months, showing that Bigfoot was not resting on its laurels. It’s faster and more capable, plus physically smaller. It drops the giant K-shaped cooler and relies on airflow within the case for cooling.

Late last year, Bigfoot released a freely available program called Dashboard. Dashboard is a software utility which enables users to monitor their network capability and flow. It visualizes data with graphs and charts, giving the user the tools to make data-driven troubleshooting easier. Additionally, it provides a way for the user to see if he or she could benefit from a Killer NIC. The program works on every computer regardless of the NIC in use. It can be left on turn gameplay, recording data to be analyzed later. It can also export to CSV for processing in a spreadsheet program such as Microsoft Excel or OpenOffice.org Calc.

A really cool thing about Dashboard is that it has a ping utility which can do both ICMP pings and UDP pings. ICMP is the standard method of determining network latency, the time it takes for a packet to reach a remote computer. UDP ping isn’t really so much a ping as it is a special functionality which Bigfoot is using to mimic video game traffic. The vast majority of games use UDP, a quick, connection-less protocol meant for speedy delivery of data which could be dropped occasionally. It’s faster than TCP, the standard, connection-based protocol for transmission of data which cannot be dropped, like HTTP for web pages and SSH for controlling servers remotely.

The ping contacts a server in the Amazon EC2 cloud. The biggest difference between UDP and ICMP is that whereas ICMP simply goes from card to card, UDP transitions through the full network stack. Thus, if the user is using a Killer NIC, UDP communications will be much faster since the computer is using the custom network stack instead of the default Windows stack.

A lower ping means that communications between the server and the gamer’s computer are faster, thus the gamer’s computer can update quicker, showing where the gamer is somewhere in the game, updating positions of other players–and their projectiles with the gamer’s name on them.

Really, to fully witness the primary benefit of the Killer NIC, one must view a side-by-side comparison. This comparison video show performance on equal computers, save the difference in NIC, shows Everquest 2. Notice how the computer using the KillerNIC shows a much more accurate position than the other computer.

In a Team Fortress 2 test, the improvement is framerate was more than the improvement in ping latency: a 16% increase in frames per second to a 2% decrease in ping latency. Some games, notably Source engine games such as Team Fortress 2 and Counter-Strike: Source, use extremely efficient network communications, so the latency improvement is minimal. However, because network communications still require CPU time, there is a framerate performance improvement because the CPU is doing very, very little network communication processing.

In short, these are reproducible results on various metrics which show that the Killer NIC is effective, useful, and certainly not snake oil. The performance gain is different for every user and for every game, but it is there. The Killer NIC might not be worth it for everyone, but more than likely, it will be an enhancement to the gaming experience.

In terms of community and marketing, John Drewry and his team have been very actively advocating for the Killer NIC and its mission to increase performance through efficient networking.

Drewry said that Bigfoot is working to establish a guild program, in which the company will provide testing and review units, as well as discounts to members of well-known guilds, clans, and other gaming groups. Videos such as the one above help, too, and Bigfoot wants to show more side-by-side comparisons as game companies permit them to do so.

Price was a serious issue when the Killer NIC first came out. It simply wasn’t worth it for the majority of gamers. One could drop $200-$300 on a Killer NIC, or use that same money to buy a better processor, GPU, memory, or oodles of hard drive space. However, the Killer Xeno Pro seriously addressed that, dropping the price to less than $150. A quick price check shows that the card can be bought for under $100 on-line now.

Because of the cheaper price, sales are increasing, reported Drewry. It’s still an extravagance to many, but for those who have already maxed out a lot of their components, the Killer Xeno Pro is an excellent way to drop the latency and increase the framerate of games.

Most of Bigfoot’s distribution has been with OEMs. Dell/Alienware, Cyberpower, iBuyPower, Falcon Northwest, and many other high-end computer builders bought into it and make the Killer NIC a part of their high-end computers. Recently, Bigfoot decided to go the add-in board route, too, licensing its technology to companies such as Visiontek much like how AMD licenses ATI technology to Sapphire, Powercolor, et al. It’s likely that we’ll see the Killer NIC in new form factors before too long. Personally, I’d like to see a USB or ExpressCard version for gaming laptops. Also, it would be nice to see Killer NIC integrated on a high-end gaming-focused motherboard, such as ASUS’s Republic of Gaming line or MSI’s Big Bang line.

I asked Drewry about future products, and he alluded to a new revision of the Killer Xeno Pro this summer. “Newer, faster, better,” he said. “There will be some fun things early this year, too.” Marketing-wise, Bigfoot recently introduced Rod Trotter to world. Rod is “America’s favorite singer of songs about PC Based Windows Network Acceleration,” with hits such as “(Love is a) Multiplayer Game” and “Online Gameplay Blues (she’s still a tramp).” Free your mind, and appreciate the music with a big, geeky smile on your face because someone actually make a song–a country blues song–about ping latency.

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