Everything You Need to Know About Network Interface Cards (NIC)

Have you ever wondered how your computer connects to a network to send and receive information? A network interface card (NIC), a hardware component in the form of a chip or a circuit board enables your computer to connect to a network through a wireless or wired connection. 

Image of a man holding a card that shows connections with different apps.
Network interface cards help you connect to the world!

Read on as I talk more about these NICs. I’ll show you how they work, their types, and how you can choose an appropriate card for your device. 

How an NIC Works

Network interface cards follow the OSI model for enabling communication. To give you an idea, the model comprises seven layers. Each layer has a specific role in enabling communication from one device to another. In the image below, you can check the seven layers:

Infographic of the seven layers in the OSI model.
See the seven layers of the OSI!

The NIC spans both the physical and the data link layers. As a part of the physical layer, it provides the necessary circuits to help the device process and send data through a network. It also extends into the second layer, the data link layer. Here, it creates and executes the processes needed for data transmission.

An NIC acts like a transceiver to transmit and receive information simultaneously. It sits at the data link layer when a client initiates communication. Network interface cards also create the data packets needed to send information to the server. In this sense, the NIC acts as an interface for the TCP/IP protocol as it creates data packets that meet this protocol’s specifications.

Next, these data packets get transmitted to the physical layer. The network interface card converts the data packets into a digital signal. To reach the network, it transmits the digital signal through a connector, like PCI connector, PCI-E, USB, ISA connector, etc.

This brings up the following question: Does an NIC know how to choose between a wired and a wireless connection? Yes, it can. It depends on the type of NIC. Let’s take a look at these types. 

Types of NICs

Broadly speaking, NICs come in 4 types

  1. Ethernet or wired 
  2. USB 
  3. Fiber optic
  4. Wireless 

As the name suggests, each NIC type connects your computer to a network in a particular way. Let’s dive into each of these types in more detail.

1. Ethernet or Wired NICs

Ethernet NICs come with a slot for you to plug in one end of a cable while its other end gets plugged into your modem. Initially, these NICs used the Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) cards, and later they started using the Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) standard

Today, you’ll mostly find PCI cards, and their manufacturers install these as part of the computer assembly. They come in desktops whose motherboards don’t have an onboard Ethernet port. A more common form of Ethernet NIC is the Personal Computer Memory International Association (PCMCIA) card. These are small credit card-like NICs that can also get inserted into laptops and mobile devices. 

2. USB NICs

USB NICs enable computers to connect to a network through USB ports. These cards don’t get built into the computers, so you’ll have to plug them in through your USB port.

This network interface card also behaves like a USB adapter on one end and a Ethernet controller on the other. The USB NIC also sends and receives frames. In turn, the device drivers tell the OS how to connect to the internet.

3. Fiber Optic NICs

These NICs are one of the most sophisticated ones available today. They have to handle high speeds and network traffic. You can combine two or more NICs to achieve high-performance standards. 

You can also insert these NICs into a motherboard’s expansion slots. The fiber optic NIC converts data packets into electrical signals and gets transmitted through the network when you do so. 

4. Wireless NICs

Designed for wireless connections, these NICs handle radiofrequency waves to send and receive information through a wireless router. Wireless network interface cards are one of the most common types of NICs. 

You should look out for the NIC’s speed rating in the description section. This rating tells you the maximum speed that the NIC can handle. 

An image of a motherboard containing a wireless desktop network card.
Have you ever seen a Wireless Network Card?

Now that you know the different types of NICs, which one should you choose? The simple answer: It depends on what you want

How to Select an NIC

It isn’t too challenging to select the correct NIC. If you’re going for the NIC types I mentioned above, you should consider these 4 factors:

1. Speed

The most crucial aspect you must consider is speed. You want an NIC that’ll help you leverage the internet speeds offered by your service provider. At the same time, your device must also be capable of handling these speeds

For example, you can’t get a 10GB speed with a 10GB NIC if your device can only handle 1 GB. Likewise, if the maximum speed offered by your ISP is only 1GB, then you’re wasting your money on a 10GB NIC.

It’s better to understand these aspects before buying an NIC. It’ll also help you select a card that fits your network and device. Ethernet or fiber optic NICs offer higher speeds than the other four types. 

2. Multiport Redundancy

Sometimes, you may need more than one NIC for a device. For example, if you have a server, you might want to use one NIC to transmit data and another to receive sensitive information. The use of multiple ports can also offer redundancy. That’ll help you avoid network-related delays and downtimes.

Image of a device with multiple USB ports.
Achieve connection redundancy with USB NICs!

3. Connector Type

The choice of NIC largely depends on your device’s connector type. For example, if you have an RJ45 connector, you want to pick a fiber optic NIC that uses SFP+ or QFSP+. 

4. Portability

If you want to add an network interface card to a portable device, USB and wireless NICs are the best choices. You should also note that they’ll be highly limited based on the speeds of the USB ports and the routers, respectively.

Here’s a snapshot of how you can choose an NIC.

FeatureEthernet USBWireless Fiber optic 
Speed
Redundancy
Connector type (depends on your device’s configuration)
Portability
Learn the 4 types of NICs and their properties to choose the right one for you!

This, of course, doesn’t take the budget into consideration. Network interface cards come with different speeds and functions, and their prices vary greatly depending on the type and the provider. Keep this in mind when you choose your  NIC. 

Final Thoughts

Network interface cards connect your device to a network. They work at the physical and data link layers to create data packets, convert them to signals, and transmit them through the network. 

NICs come in 4 types, each with unique functionalities and compatibility. In this article, I showed you what factors to consider when selecting a network interface card. For example, you should consider the NIC’s speed, multiport redundancy, connector type, and portability. That way, you’ll get a card that works best for your device and network speeds. 

Have more questions about NICs? Check out the FAQ and Resources sections below!

FAQ

What’s the role of a network interface card?

A network interface card helps your device connect to a network. It creates the data packets needed to transmit information, converts them into digital signals, and sends them through the network.

Do I need an NIC?

Yes, you need an NIC to connect to a network. Most desktops come with a network interface card, so you won’t need to worry about getting one. However, if you need additional cards or want a high-speed one, you can buy a USB, wireless, or fiber optic NIC.

Where can I find the NIC on my desktop?

You can find an NIC near the USB ports of your desktop computer’s motherboard. If your desktop has a separate expansion slot, your NIC’s at the back of your desktop, usually near the PCI slot.

Can I use more than one NIC?

Yes, you can use more than one NIC on the same device. You can also use an Ethernet and a USB NIC to communicate across different networks. Additionally, you can buy fiber optic NICs as add-ons.

How can I know more about my NIC?

If you’re using a Windows device, go to the Control Panel. Click the Network and Internet Connections icon, and under the LAN or High-Speed Internet categories, you will find out more information about your network interface card.  

Resources

TechGenix: Article on Troubleshooting OSI Model Problems

Learn how to understand and troubleshoot problems with the OSI Model

TechGenix: Article on VMs with Multiple NICs in Microsoft Azure

Discover how to set up Azure VMs with multiple NICs.

TechGenix: Article on Creating Networks with ISA 2004 (Part 1)

Find out how to create networks with ISA 2004.

TechGenix: Tutorial on Ethernet (Part 1)

Learn all about Ethernet.

TechGenix: Tutorial on How to Set Up a PCMCIA Modem

Read this article to know how to set up your PCMCIA modem. 

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