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Cable Diagnostic feature
LED speed indicators
Cons: Lack of modern Linux distro support
The most basic fundamental networking component is the network interface card (NIC). In today's broadband world, it's become a standard feature and part of every networked PC. Yet not all NICs are created equal. If you're looking for one that stands out from the crowd, the D-Link DGE-530T is a price competitive Gigabit NIC loaded with performance and management features that put it in a class of its own.
What It Is
Your average everyday 10/100 NIC will auto-negotiate between 10 Mbps Ethernet and 100 Mbps Fast Ethernet networks. The DGE-530T is a 32-bit gigabit over copper adapter that will interoperate and auto-negotiate on 10 Mbps Ethernet and 100Mbps Fast Ethernet and 1000 Mbps (Gigabit) networks. The card's external LED lights also visibly let you know at what speed the network is operating.
I had shied away from Gigabit NICs in the past partially due to their significantly higher cost as opposed to a "regular" 10/100 NIC. However, at an MSRP of only $29 the DGE-530T is an extremely price competitive option. Beyond just offering Gigabit capability, it also includes management (via SNMP) and diagnostic capability to help manage the card (and host PC's) network connectivity.
Installation: Windows, Easy ... Linux, a Bit Tricky
Installing the DGE-530T is a relatively quick and easy process on Windows-based systems that involves inserting the card into an available PCI slot and then loading the appropriate driver.
The minimum requirements listed are 150 MHz CPU, 64 MB RAM and 32 MB available hard drive space. I tested the DGE-530 on a number of different PCs including as close to a minimum spec PC that I had available (a Pentium MMX 200 MHz CPU with 64 MB RAM). At first glance I had thought that the minimum spec were a bit too minimal, but after testing I can verify that it will install on even a 200 Mhz CPU system and (much to my surprise) work.
(I actually ended up testing the DGE-530T on a number of different systems and OS's including 200 MHz, 500 Mhz ,2.0 GHz and 3.3 GHz CPUs and Windows 98 SE, Windows XP SP2, Red Hat 7.3 and Centos4 a Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 clone operating systems.)
The D-Link included CD-ROM has an easy-to-use driver install that worked well on both the Windows XP SP2 and Windows 98SE systems that I tested it on.
On Linux, though, I had a significantly harder time getting the DGE-530T drivers installed. The Linux driver installation issue may very well be more of a Linux issue than a D-Link issue, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that simply put, it's harder to get the DGE-530T drivers loaded on a Linux system than a Windows system. The D-Link CD includes drivers that support Red Hat Linux 7.3 (which has not been supported or offered by Red Hat for more than a year at this point).
Luckily, I happened to have a Red Hat 7.3 system to test on and properly install the drivers (after some wrangling). I also tested on a modern 2005 fully patched and up-to-date Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 system (I actually used a clone for testing called CentOS 4), which was a bit harder to get installed as D-Link's technical support people (both via e-mail and on the phone on multiple occasions) were mostly clueless when it came to Linux support.
On Windows, the installation also includes a pair of tools that really set the DGE-530T apart from all the other NICs in this class. The two tools are an SNMP agent and the D-Link Network Control application.
D-Link Network Control
With just about every consumer NIC I've ever used, once you've installed the card there is little control beyond doing driver updates. The D-Link Network Control is a useful application that is installed along with the Windows drivers that provides a number of "tab views" that allow you to control the card as well as provide insight into how your DGE-530T is performing.
Among the useful tools included on the Network Control is a feature called "Virtual Cable Tester" (VCF). VCG determines the connection speed of the network as well as the length of the cable. Cable length can be an issue in some installations as there is a maximum effective operational distance of 100 meters for a typical Cat5 cable.
As part of my testing, I connected Cat5, Cat5e and Cat6 cables of varying lengths to both Gigabit and 100Mbps switches. In every case the D-Link Network Control application correctly determined the length and status of the cable as well as the connection speed. The usefulness of this feature cannot be overstated. Cabling is such a core issue and one that usually requires separate (expensive) instruments to test and verify. The Network Control tool puts the power right on the host system and makes basic cable diagnostics a quick and painless affair.
SNMP Agent Features
I would not have expected to get SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol) management features on a piece of hardware that has a price tag of $29.99. SNMP provides for advanced remote management and monitoring of your DGE-530T, which is incredibly useful for proper network management. Via a remote SNMP tool (usually some form a MIB browser) you can monitor system uptime, date, processes, memory and overall device status.
The DGE-530T also includes a Wake On LAN (WOL) feature that allows you to "wake up" the host system from standby remotely. 802.3x flow control as well as 802.1p priority tagging standard are also supported which in a nutshell means that the DGE-530T knows how to handle lots of different types of traffic without slowdown or data corruption.
D-Link has produced a seriously impressive product with the DGE-530T. With all of its included management, performance and diagnostic features, it's a lot more than just an average NIC. At its price point, it's also a more than reasonable value and one that I suspect will help to make Gigabit networks a reality for many.
Sean Michael Kerner is a contributor to PracticalyNetworked.,com