We have recently started a series on 2.5GbE NICs. Intel has Foxville which launched in Q4 2019 and is expected to be discontinued sometime in 2034. That launch is about seven years after the now ubiquitous Intel i210-AT launch. If you have a lower-cost server today with onboard 1GbE from a whitebox OEM, you probably have an Intel i210-AT NIC. In fact, that NIC has been so popular that it has found its way into a number of workstations as well. Seven years later, we get a 2.5x speed bump on a smaller and less expensive NIC. Still, the Intel i225 is missing a key feature that is keeping it out of servers.
Intel i225 Foxville NICs v. Intel i210
Here is a quick comparison of the currently announced Intel i225 variants as well as the Intel i210-AT:
As you can see, the package size is getting smaller moving from 9mm x 9mm to 7mm x 7mm for the Intel i225-LM. The recommended customer price listed for the i225-V is now only $2.40 but Intel can bundle these NICs with other components on a motherboard for OEMs. The biggest change is that the NIC is moving to 2.5GbE instead of 1GbE as its maximum speed. Nbase-T is important as Wi-Fi networks get faster, we need faster-wired backhauls to ensure wired networks are not the bottleneck. 2.5GbE can run over existing CAT5e and newer wiring that already lines ceiling tiles and walls of many businesses.
The feature that the Intel i225 NIC is clearly missing now is the sideband support. While many in the networking world may not know what this is, STH touched on this in our piece Explaining the Baseboard Management Controller or BMC in Servers. There we had the following ASPEED AST2500 BMC diagram:
That “Shared NIC” utilizes the sideband feature to allow BMC access over the same physical NIC.
What STH is hearing from vendors is that without that feature, the current Intel i225 lineup is not suitable for servers. Intel can release a future variant with the feature. Until that happens the i225 is not ready to replace the i210-AT as the go-to NIC in servers. As a result, your basic networking is stuck with 2012-era technology.
A hope we have for 2020 is that Intel uses its NIC technology to push 2.5GbE (or better 5GbE) into the server market. Many will still utilize these NICs as 1GbE devices. Still, making the i225 available to whitebox OEM communities at a low cost will move the industry forward. If you saw our recent Realtek RTL8125 2.5GbE controller reviews such as the TRENDnet TEG-25GECTX review and the Syba 2.5 Gigabit Ethernet PCIe NIC review you will see that the $2.40 controller price can offer the market a viable alternative in the add-on card market as well. Software support typically lags server NIC introduction by a few quarters. As an industry, if we want more from our bare minimum integrated networking, even if it is at the low-end and edge. Getting a viable Intel i225 NIC into servers will mark a big step in the process.