A network interface controller (NIC, also known as a network interface card, network adapter, LAN adapter or physical network interface, and by similar terms) is a computer hardware component that connects a computer to a computer network.
Early network interface controllers were commonly implemented on expansion cards that plugged 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.
Modern network interface controllers offer advanced features such as interrupt and DMA interfaces to the host processors, support for multiple receive and transmit queues, partitioning into multiple logical interfaces, and on-controller network traffic processing such as the TCP offload engine.
The network controller implements the electronic circuitry required to communicate using a specific physical layer and data link layer standard such as Ethernet or Wi-Fi. This provides a base for a full network protocol stack, allowing communication among computers on the same local area network (LAN) and large-scale network communications through routable protocols, such as Internet Protocol (IP).
The NIC allows computers to communicate over a computer network, either by using cables or wirelessly. The NIC is both a physical layer and data link layer device, as it provides physical access to a networking medium and, for IEEE 802 and similar networks, provides a low-level addressing system through the use of MAC addresses that are uniquely assigned to network interfaces.
Network controllers were originally implemented as expansion cards that plugged into a computer bus. The low cost and ubiquity of the Ethernet standard means that most new computers have a network interface controller built into the motherboard. Newer server motherboards may have multiple network interfaces built-in. The Ethernet capabilities are either integrated into the motherboard chipset or implemented via a low-cost dedicated Ethernet chip. A separate network card is typically no longer required unless additional independent network connections are needed or some non-Ethernet type of network is used. A general trend in computer hardware is towards integrating the various components of systems on a chip, and this is also applied to network interface cards.
An Ethernet network controller typically has an 8P8C socket where the network cable is connected. Older NICs also supplied BNC, or AUI connections. Ethernet network controllers typically support 10 Mbit/s Ethernet, 100 Mbit/s Ethernet, and 1000 Mbit/s Ethernet varieties. Such controllers are designated as 10/100/1000, meaning that they can support data rates of 10, 100 or 1000 Mbit/s. 10 Gigabit Ethernet NICs are also available, and, as of November 2014, are beginning to be available on computer motherboards.
A Qlogic QLE3442-CU SFP+ dual port NIC
Modular designs like SFP and SFP+ are highly popular, especially for fiber-optic communication. These define a standard receptacle for media-dependent transceivers, so users can easily adapt the network interface to their needs.
LEDs adjacent to or integrated into the network connector inform the user of whether the network is connected, and when data activity occurs.
The NIC may use one or more of the following techniques to indicate the availability of packets to transfer:
- Polling is where the CPU examines the status of the peripheral under program control.
- Interrupt-driven I/O is where the peripheral alerts the CPU that it is ready to transfer data.
NICs may use one or more of the following techniques to transfer packet data:
- Programmed input/output, where the CPU moves the data to or from the NIC to memory.
- Direct memory access (DMA), where a device other than the CPU assumes control of the system bus to move data to or from the NIC to memory. This removes load from the CPU but requires more logic on the card. In addition, a packet buffer on the NIC may not be required and latency can be reduced.