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A network card, network adapter or NIC (network interface controller) is a piece of computer hardware designed to allow computers to communicate over a computer network. It is an OSI model layer 2 (Data Link Layer) item because it has a MAC address. It allows users to connect to each other either by using cables or wirelessly.
Every network card has a unique 48-bit serial number called a MAC address, which is written to ROM carried on the card. Every computer on a network must have a card with a unique MAC address. No two cards ever manufactured share the same address. This is accomplished by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (The IEEE), which is responsible for assigning unique MAC addresses to the vendors of network interface controllers.
Whereas network cards used to be expansion cards that plug into a computer bus, the low cost and ubiquity of the Ethernet standard means that most newer computers have a network interface built into the motherboard. These motherboards either have Ethernet capabilities integrated into the motherboard chipset, or implemented via a low cost dedicated Ethernet chip, connected through the PCI (or the newer PCI express bus). A separate network card is not required unless multiple interfaces are needed or some other type of network is used. Even newer motherboards may have built-in dual network (Ethernet) interfaces.
The card implements the electronic circuitry required to communicate using a specific physical layer and data link layer standard such as Ethernet or token ring. This provides a base for a full network protocol stack, allowing communication among small groups of computers on the same LAN and large-scale network communications through routable protocols, such as IP.
There are four techniques used for transfer of data, the NIC may use one or more of these techniques.
- Polling is where the microprocessor examines the status of the peripheral under program control.
- Programmed I/O is where the microprocessor alerts the designated peripheral by applying its address to the system's address bus.
- Interrupt-driven I/O is where the peripheral alerts the microprocessor that it's ready to transfer data.
- DMA is where the intelligent peripheral assumes control of the system bus to access memory directly. This removes load from the CPU but requires a separate processor on the card.
A network card typically has a twisted pair, BNC, or AUI socket where the network cable is connected, and a few LEDs to inform the user of whether the network is active, and whether or not there is data being transmitted on it. The Network Cards are typically available in 10/100/1000 Mbits/s(Mbps). This means they can support a transfer rate of 10 or 100 or 1000 Megabits per second.
- ASIX Electronics
- Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC)
- Marvell Technology Group
- National Semiconductor
- VIA Networking
- MAC address
- TCP Offload Engine (TOE)
- Host bus adapter (HBA)
- Wireless network interface card (WNIC)
- Gigabit Ethernet