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Choosing the Right Network Card

How to Choose a Network Card

When you think about networking, there’s a lot of focus on switches, panels, racks, cables, and the backbone infrastructure that makes it all work.

It’s easy to forget about devices that enable individual networking components to function. One such case is a network interface card (NIC). They allow your computerized devices to connect to the network, so they’re absolutely essential. Many devices have NICs built into them, which is why they are easy to overlook. But, there are times when you need to purchase NICs. When that happens, this guide will help you choose the right option.

Choose the Bus

The first step is selecting the right bus for your NIC. For the most part, there are four bus options: PCI, PCI-X, PCIe, and USB. USB is the primary option for externally connected NICs. If you’re doing an internal connection, then it will be one of the other three.

To figure out what kind of bus your card needs, you have to check the device that will house the card (usually a server or computer workstation). You can open up the device to see what bus connections are available, or you can look up that information in a fact sheet about the specific device.

Regardless, the device will dictate which bus you need. If your device supports multiple bus types, then you can compare performance and price options across all compatible NICs.

Check NIC Speeds

Once you know your bus, then you can look at speeds. Bus types can limit the NIC’s capabilities. In general, if you aren’t connecting rather old legacy devices, then you can get up to 1G speeds pretty easily.

The challenge comes when you need higher speeds. Modern networks can support 10G, 25G, and even 40G connections for individual devices. You’ll want to make sure the NIC you choose can keep up with the speeds you need.

Count the Ports

Each NIC will have its own number of ports that you can attach to a network or networked devices. Many NICs just have one port, but for a specialized server or workstation, you might want to consider additional ports. It’s either a feature that means nothing to you, or it's indispensable.

Look at Your Connection Types

Even when you have found a NIC with the right bus connection and appropriate performance, you’ll need to think about how your device will connect to the network.

For lower speeds, Ethernet is very common. Both cat5e and cat6 cables connect via Rj45. For those networks, that’s the connection port (or ports) you will need on the NIC.

For faster networks, you’ll see a whole lot of different connection types, most of them related to fiber optics. Here are a few common connections that you might need to consider:

  • RS-7188
  • QSFP+
  • DAC
  • MTP
  • MPO

There are dozens of other connection types that might apply to your setup, but the ones listed are the most common (along with Ethernet). It’s simple enough. Your NIC connection port(s) has to match the connection type on your switch.

Ensure Operating System Compatibility

NICs work with computerized devices. Ultimately, that means that they run via software. So, they have to be compatible with the operating system on your device.

Check the system that is running on the device that will use the NIC. Once you have that information, you can look up compatibility for any NIC that matches your other requirements. Plenty of NICs are compatible with multiple operating systems, so ensure that your operating system is included.

Remember Your Budget

Everything above handles compatibility and performance. Using those metrics, you will still find a range of options for the NIC that you actually purchase.

The last step is a simple matter of getting the best price you can for the hardware you need.

There is one important thing to remember while you browse. Warranties and support guarantees are part of what you are buying, so factor those into your budget. If a slightly more expensive NIC comes with a much longer warranty, that might be worth the cost.

This is a judgment call you will have to make, but don’t ignore warranties and support packages. In a large enough network, you will be taking advantage of both.

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