The Software and Technology
Despite its relative complexity, installing the Killer NIC and enjoying the benefits offered by the technology is no different than installing any other PCI-based expansion card.
All that a user is required to do to get a Killer NIC up and running is insert the card into an available PCI slot, power up the system, and install the drivers using the included CD once Windows XP has fully booted. For now, the Killer NIC is compatible only with 32-bit Windows XP, but 64-Bit support is on the way too. Drivers will hopefully be available by mid-month according to the company's website. Vista and Linux support is planned is well, but Linux users may not get all of the same benefits. The Killer NIC is able to work its magic in part because it bypasses the Windows Network Stack in favor of its own. That's actually what happens when LLR (or Game Mode in newer drivers) is enabled. Since the Windows Network Stack is obviously not used in Linux, the benefit of having the card installed would be minimized. And at this point, there are no plans for a PCI Express version of the Killer.
We should note that we installed the Killer in a number of motherboards and did have some trouble with one. On the Asus A8R32-MVP Deluxe, which is powered by the CrossFire Xpress 3200 Northbridge and ULi 1575 Southbridge, the card would not power up. We contacted Bigfoot about the problem and received a new card that was supposed to resolve the issue, but unfortunately the second card didn't work in that motherboard either. It appears that some early cards needed a slight re-work to deal with chipsets that don't completely adhere to PCI standards. The good news is that Bigfoot is aware of the issue and is offering RMAs to users who need one of the re-worked cards. More information is available on the company's support page.
We snapped of a few screenshots of the Killer's control panels to show exactly what settings can be manually manipulated by end users. In addition to being able to tweak, enable or disable some of the card's features, like GameFirst and PingThrottle, a number of buffers and descriptors can be altered as well. The drivers and the card's firmware can be automatically updated too, should the need arise.
There are five main features and benefits offered by the Killer NIC and its software. Bigfoot does a good job of summarizing each in their marketing materials, so before we elaborate, lets see that the company had to say...
MaxFPS - MaxFPS is a name for the technology that offloads network processing to the Killer's NPU. The Windows network stack is completely bypassed, freeing your computer's main processor to focus on running the game. More CPU power means faster frame rates. This is especially true when main game loops (e.g. a frame loop) includes networking function calls that used to go to Windows, and now go to Killer. Interestingly, this improves frame rates, even when no network data is available to process, because most main game loops check for data at least once per frame.
UltimatePing - UltimatePing is a name for the Killer technology also used in MaxFPS, but yielding a different result. The other effect of bypassing the Windows network stack is that Killer can reduce your latency giving a split second advantage in online games. This is again highlighted when a main game loop only checks the network for data once every main game loop.
FNA - FNA stand for Flexable Network Architecture. It is the technology that gives Killer an infinite potential. FNA exposes the underlying Linux Operating System running on the Killer to the user. The card ships with the ability for a user to get to the Linux command prompt. FNA allows users to write Flexible Network Applications (FNapps) themselves or download them from KillerNIC.com or other websites. FNApps are Linux compiled applications that can be anything from BitTorrent clients to File Servers to VOIP communications devices. FNApps can use the Killer's USB port to completely OFFLOAD a full VOIP application (using USB Mic or headset), or a full BitTorrent app (using a USB Key or Hard Drive for storage). Offloading applications from the PC to the Killer NIC is another way to allow the CPU to stay focused on making sure the game runs at peak performance.
PingThrottle - PingThrottle is the name of the technology that allows Killer to restore the sense of fair play when there is a server proximity advantage. The gamer with the unfair advantage can dial the ping back up, so that they can win without worrying about being the LPB (low Ping bastard). Also, professional gamers can use this feature to handicap themselves for training purposes.
GameFirst - Prioritizes your inbound and outbound network traffic so that your gaming packets are delivered first. This feature is useful if you are running other networking applications on your computer besides your game.
MaxFPS, GameFirst, PingThrottle and UltimatePing are all intertwined, and work by bypassing the Windows Network Stack to reduce latency, prioritize packets, and offload the network processing the host CPU. When we heard the Killer bypasses the Windows Network Stack, we wondered if this could lead to some security vulnerabilities or if the card would "break" software firewalls, and were told there shouldn't be any issues. If a security vulnerability was found in the Killer's custom stack, Bigfoot said they'd be able to patch it quickly via a driver or firmware update, and most software firewalls should function properly. Here's what Bigfoot had to say specifically about these issues:
"A lot of gamers turn off firewalls when gaming, because they want the performance benefits that can be achieved by turning everything else off other than the game. But for those that choose to run them while gaming, we expect most firewalls will work fine when bypassing the network stack using Killer. For any that don't, we have recently introduced LLR App Mode (with the latest patch that went out on Friday). LLR App Mode is still highly optimized for low latency networking, but without having to bypass the network stack. When a gamer wants to play games, they can switch to LLR Game Mode (without having to reboot) and when not gaming can switch back. We expect that most gamers will stay in LLR Game Mode all the time.
On a side note, a firewall would be a great FNApp for our Flexible Network Architecture. If the firewall were running on the Killer, then you could game with a firewall with no impact to your game experience. This is something we are actively supporting our customers and partners on.
We also have not found any additional security vulnerabilities thus far: but if we ever do, our frequent driver updates and the new LLR App Mode feature will help get the word out and hopefully fill any potential holes."
The FNA (Flexible Network Architecture) is a standalone feature that's unique to the Killer NIC. FNA can use the embedded version of Linux for a number of different tasks. By developing FNApps the Killer can essentially function as computer within a computer. As of now, Bigfoot plans to release some applications themselves, but ultimately they want to encourage the community to create more. Bigfoot is working on a Firewall, BitTorrent client, and VOIP application currently.
What's interesting about the FNApps is that they can completely reside on a flash drive or external hard drive plugged into the card's USB port and run independent of the host computer. The BitTorrent client, for example, can download in the background and write to the external HD without using any resources in Windows.