Rivet Networks Q&A: From The Bigfoot Killer NIC To Qualcomm And Back

Rivet Networks Q&A

PC gamers and longtime HotHardware readers will no doubt be familiar with the Killer series of network controllers. We’ve taken a look at a number of the add-in versions over the years, including the original beast with the massive “K” heatsink. Many of today’s gamer-targeted motherboards also feature Killer networking technology, like this Gigabyte motherboard we recently looked at, for example.

Though at their core Killer NICs are network controllers, that function just like more basic, mainstream solutions, they offer additional features designed to enhance performance and potentially improve the gaming experience. How the Killer NICs work their magic isn’t quite clear to gamers, however, so we thought we’d chat with Michael Cubbage, CEO at Rivet Networks – the current purveyors of Killer Networking product – to learn more about what the company is up to and where it’s headed...
killer nics
Can you give us a brief history of Rivet Networks and its connection with Bigfoot Networks (the inventors of the original Killer NIC) and Qualcomm?

Sure. It’s been an exciting 12 months. As you know, Qualcomm Atheros acquired Bigfoot Networks in 2011. Before the acquisition, Bigfoot had the Killer line of networking products and was developing an advanced traffic shaping technology for routers. During our time at Qualcomm we spent a lot of effort improving the Killer products by moving them to a simpler, better, and more cost effective solution as well as dramatically increasing the OEM and ODM customer base.

Last December, we started a new company called Rivet Networks to focus on Killer and take advantage of what we think is a great opportunity in gaming/performance networking. This was a big move for a lot of reasons, but we felt that there was a lot more that we could do to enhance the networking experience of gamers. When creating solutions for gamers, you need to go all in from a product standpoint. That is what we have done. We have already tripled the investment into the product line. We also brought the critical talent from Bigfoot and Qualcomm along with us, including Wayne Dunlap who was the CTO of Bigfoot prior to the acquisition and managed the Killer line of products with me at Qualcomm. He and I created Rivet Networks, then hired Bob Grim, who left AMD to rejoin the technology he helped found with me years ago. We have a lot of momentum right now with our new products and company, and are really excited about it.

killer network logo
The Killer E2400 and Killer Wireless-AC 1535 are your two latest Killer networking products. How do these two products differ from some of the more common, mainstream networking solutions currently on the market?

The short answer is that with both products we inspect every packet, automatically prioritize and manage every packet, and if necessary tag the packets appropriately so the rest of the internet will handle them in an optimal way. We call this technology Advanced Stream Detect, and with it we also give users the ability to set their own priorities on their networked applications through our Killer Network Manager software. Most other solutions are built for the masses focusing on connectivity and throughput, and while some of them are good products they are not designed with gaming in mind. Games don’t need a lot of data – in fact, games use only about 20Kbps of data on average. It’s a tiny amount, but it is very critical that data is not get delayed in any way. By detecting and accurately prioritizing each networked application, we can ensure that your critical applications that need data quickly get it as soon as possible.

The Killer Wireless-AC 1535 is a 2x2 11ac Wi-Fi adapter that ships with several performance enhancing features that we market under ExtremeRange Technology. One of the most important features here is full MU-MIMO support. The Killer Wireless-AC 1535 is currently the only 2x2 11ac Wi-Fi adapter in computers today to feature MU-MIMO support. Without going into a ton of detail on Multi-User MIMO, it is a feature that increases the overall usable bandwidth between multiple devices and a router by allowing multiple data transmissions at the same time. With this feature enabled, users can experience up to 60% additional throughput with their MU-MIMO enabled router when using the Killer Wireless-AC, 1535 and one other device.

Another cool thing about Killer E2400 and Killer 1535 is you can use them both at the same time. We call this DoubleShot Pro technology. Our philosophy is you have two network connections, why not get the benefits of using both of them? This technology smartly chooses which applications should run over which Killer interface. For games and other high priority traffic we send this traffic over the fastest interface, which is usually Ethernet. We then send less critical traffic like emails and Windows updates over the other interface, usually Wi-Fi. This ensures that your critical packets are delivered to your broadband connection first. Many people around the world, especially in Europe and Asia, live where they have a free Wi-Fi connection or have an unlimited data plan on their phone. With DoubleShot Pro, we also allow each Killer product to connect to a different broadband network and then we prioritize each application to run over the connection that makes the most sense. We can very easily show you a demo where we are using both Killer interfaces and have 1.6Gbps of downloads going on concurrently which is really cool.
killer 1535 nic
A Killer Wireless-AC 1535 Adapter
Do the Killer E2400 and Wireless-AC 1535 feature custom ASICs?

No, we completely stopped using a standalone Network Processor in 2011. As Intel increased the speed and performance of its Core processor family, we found having a 400 MHz network offload processor actually slowed things down. We moved to an optimized Qualcomm-based gigabit Ethernet controller in 2012. In order to create the best networking products it is critical that we use extremely capable hardware and that we have full control over the full functionality of the chipset. Given our history and partnership with Qualcomm we have been able to incorporate valuable features into the chipset and have had full access to the hardware including all of the registers that need to be tweaked for queueing and prioritization. It is critical to have these hooks in place to the hardware so that there is absolutely no waiting for your most important data packets (usually gaming). The Killer software and the gigabit Ethernet controller work in tandem to inspect each packet, prioritize it, and manage the data appropriately so your experience is optimized.

We’ve heard from readers claiming that Killer NIC technologies are nothing special, with standard ICs under the hood and some semi-custom firmware at best on top – citing the technology wasn’t worth any additional investment. What would you say to these claims?

We see these questions in forums sometimes when users are discussing the merits of the reviews on our technology. There are several important points to make on this:

1) We are the only company innovating in networking for PCs today. As I said earlier, the other products in the market are built for masses. Our engineering team brings decades of experience in network optimization for games and video from companies such as Intel, Polycom, Qualcomm, and Microsoft. One of our engineers who has been with us from the beginning of Bigfoot was an instrumental part of Intel’s TCP offload engines they used to sell in servers in the early 2000s, and Wayne was the CTO of Polycom’s Video business, which was Polycom’s largest division. Our view is if you are going to buy or build an expensive gaming PC, why would you put such great a CPU and GPUs with a networking product that is not optimized for gaming and will treat a gaming packet exactly the same as it treats a Microsoft Update packet

2) The technology works. We have yet to sit with anybody (customers, partners, or press), and show them a demo and have them say they don’t like it, don’t get it, or don’t think it is valuable. We are now sold in Dell/Alienware, MSI, Gigabyte, and Acer, and we have more big name partners launching soon. Just to be perfectly blunt, the odds are stacked against us when we try to get designed in with an OEM. Our competitors have way more marketing money, more support resources to throw at the design in process, and actively try to lock us out. The only way these companies can choose Killer is if it soundly beats the alternatives they are looking at. They take our products into their labs and just beat on them with hundreds of hours of testing. We have to win and win decisively to get into their systems.

3) The phrase in the question – “the technology wasn’t worth any additional investment” is an important point for us to hit on. The old Killer NIC we sold in 2006 was an old fashioned, add-in NIC card that to be fair was really expensive when it was launched. User’s biggest complaints for many years were on pricing. We listened. When we left the offload chip design for a gigabit Ethernet controller, we completely changed the cost structure. While Killer used to be expensive years ago, it is now very comparable to other standard networking solutions. Getting this cost structure right was critical for the growth we have had over the last few years, and now users can go pick a system that has our technology and get all the great benefits without spending the price premium they would have had to spend years ago.

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