US 6226680 Intelligent network interface system method for protocol processing

ABSTRACT – A system for protocol processing in a computer network has an intelligent network interface card (INIC) or communication processing device (CPD) associated with a host computer. The INIC provides a fast-path that avoids protocol processing for most large multipacket messages, greatly accelerating data communication. The INIC also assists the host for those message packets that are chosen for processing by host software layers. A communication control block for a message is defined that allows DMA controllers of the INIC to move data, free of headers, directly to or from a destination or source in the host. The context is stored in the IMC as a communication control block (CCB) that can be passed back to the host for message processing by the host. The INIC contains specialized hardware circuits that are much faster at their specific tasks than a general purpose CPU. A preferred embodiment includes a trio of pipelined processors with separate processors devoted to transmit, receive and management processing, with full duplex communication for four fast Ethernet nodes.


The present invention relates generally to computer or other networks, and more particularly to protocol processing for information communicated between hosts such as computers connected to a network.


The advantages of network computing are increasingly evident. The convenience and efficiency of providing information, communication or computational power to individuals at their personal computer or other end user devices has led to rapid growth of such network computing, including internet as well as intranet systems and applications.

As is well known, most network computer communication is accomplished with the aid of a layered software architecture for moving information between host computers connected to the network. The layers help to segregate information into manageable segments, the general functions of each layer often based on an international standard called Open Systems Interconnection (OSI). OSI sets forth seven processing layers through which information may pass when received by a host in order to be presentable to an end user. Similarly, transmission of information from a host to the network may pass through those seven processing layers in reverse order. Each step of processing and service by a layer may include copying the processed information. Another reference model that is widely implemented, called TCP/IP (TCP stands for transport control protocol, while IP denotes internet protocol) essentially employs five of the seven layers of OSI.

Networks may include, for instance, a high-speed bus such as an Ethernet connection or an internet connection between disparate local area networks (LANs), each of which includes multiple hosts, or any of a variety of other known means for data transfer between hosts. According to the OSI standard, physical layers are connected to the network at respective hosts, the physical layers providing transmission and receipt of raw data bits via the network. A data link layer is serviced by the physical layer of each host, the data link layers providing frame division and error correction to the data received from the physical layers, as well as processing acknowledgment frames sent by the receiving host. A network layer of each host is serviced by respective data link layers, the network layers primarily controlling size and coordination of subnets of packets of data.

A transport layer is serviced by each network layer and a session layer is serviced by each transport layer within each host. Transport layers accept data from their respective session layers and split the data into smaller units for transmission to the other host’s transport layer, which concatenates the data for presentation to respective presentation layers. Session layers allow for enhanced communication control between the hosts. Presentation layers are serviced by their respective session layers, the presentation layers translating between data semantics and syntax which may be peculiar to each host and standardized structures of data representation. Compression and/or encryption of data may also be accomplished at the presentation level. Application layers are serviced by respective presentation layers, the application layers translating between programs particular to individual hosts and standardized programs for presentation to either an application or an end user. The TCP/IP standard includes the lower four layers and application layers, but integrates the functions of session layers and presentation layers into adjacent layers. Generally speaking, application, presentation and session layers are defined as upper layers, while transport, network and data link layers are defined as lower layers.

The rules and conventions for each layer are called the protocol of that layer, and since the protocols and general functions of each layer are roughly equivalent in various hosts, it is useful to think of communication occurring directly between identical layers of different hosts, even though these peer layers do not directly communicate without information transferring sequentially through each layer below. Each lower layer performs a service for the layer immediately above it to help with processing the communicated information. Each layer saves the information for processing and service to the next layer. Due to the multiplicity of hardware and software architectures, systems and programs commonly employed, each layer is necessary to insure that the data can make it to the intended destination in the appropriate form, regardless of variations in hardware and software that may intervene.

In preparing data for transmission from a first to a second host, some control data is added at each layer of the first host regarding the protocol of that layer, the control data being indistinguishable from the original (payload) data for all lower layers of that host. Thus an application layer attaches an application header to the payload data and sends the combined data to the presentation layer of the sending host, which receives the combined data, operates on it and adds a presentation header to the data, resulting in another combined data packet. The data resulting from combination of payload data, application header and presentation header is then passed to the session layer, which performs required operations including attaching a session header to the data and presenting the resulting combination of data to the transport layer. This process continues as the information moves to lower layers, with a transport header, network header and data link header and trailer attached to the data at each of those layers, with each step typically including data moving and copying, before sending the data as bit packets over the network to the second host.

The receiving host generally performs the converse of the above-described process, beginning with receiving the bits from the network, as headers are removed and data processed in order from the lowest (physical) layer to the highest (application) layer before transmission to a destination of the receiving host. Each layer of the receiving host recognizes and manipulates only the headers associated with that layer, since to that layer the higher layer control data is included with and indistinguishable from the payload data. Multiple interrupts, valuable central processing unit (CPU) processing time and repeated data copies may also be necessary for the receiving host to place the data in an appropriate form at its intended destination.

The above description of layered protocol processing is simplified, as college-level textbooks devoted primarily to this subject are available, such as Computer Networks, Third Edition (1996) by Andrew S. Tanenbaum, which is incorporated herein by reference. As defined in that book, a computer network is an interconnected collection of autonomous computers, such as internet and intranet systems, including local area networks (LANs), wide area networks (WANs), asynchronous transfer mode (ATM), ring or token ring, wired, wireless, satellite or other means for providing communication capability between separate processors. A computer is defined herein to include a device having both logic and memory functions for processing data, while computers or hosts connected to a network are said to be heterogeneous if they function according to different operating systems or communicate via different architectures.

As networks grow increasingly popular and the information communicated thereby becomes increasingly complex and copious, the need for such protocol processing has increased. It is estimated that a large fraction of the processing power of a host CPU may be devoted to controlling protocol processes, diminishing the ability of that CPU to perform other tasks. Network interface cards have been developed to help with the lowest layers, such as the physical and data link layers. It is also possible to increase protocol processing speed by simply adding more processing power or CPUs according to conventional arrangements. This solution, however, is both awkward and expensive. But the complexities presented by various networks, protocols, architectures, operating systems and applications generally require extensive processing to afford communication capability between various network hosts.


The current invention provides a system for processing network communication that greatly increases the speed of that processing and the efficiency of moving the data being communicated. The invention has been achieved by questioning the long-standing practice of performing multilayered protocol processing on a general-purpose processor. The protocol processing method and architecture that results effectively collapses the layers of a connection-based, layered architecture such as TCP/IP into a single wider layer which is able to send network data more directly to and from a desired location or buffer on a host. This accelerated processing is provided to a host for both transmitting and receiving data, and so improves performance whether one or both hosts involved in an exchange of information have such a feature.

The accelerated processing includes employing representative control instructions for a given message that allow data from the message to be processed via a fast-path which accesses message data directly at its source or delivers it directly to its intended destination. This fast-path bypasses conventional protocol processing of headers that accompany the data. The fast-path employs a specialized microprocessor designed for processing network communication, avoiding the delays and pitfalls of conventional software layer processing, such as repeated copying and interrupts to the CPU. In effect, the fast-path replaces the states that are traditionally found in several layers of a conventional network stack with a single state machine encompassing all those layers, in contrast to conventional rules that require rigorous differentiation and separation of protocol layers. The host retains a sequential protocol processing stack which can be employed for setting up a fast-path connection or processing message exceptions. The specialized microprocessor and the host intelligently choose whether a given message or portion of a message is processed by the microprocessor or the host stack.


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