In 2006, the world saw a public debut of two add-on cards that promised to change the gaming experience forever. AGEIA debuted PhysX, or Physics Processing Unit (PPU), while a small team from Texas introduced a Killer NPU – Network Processing Unit. In 2008, AGEIA ended up acquired by NVIDIA, while Bigfoot Networks was acquired by Qualcomm and became a part of Qualcomm Atheros.
A few weeks ago, we learned that something unusual happened. It is very rare that the technology, once acquired ends up back in a standalone company. To be more precise, in a company owned and run by the original co-founders. Yet, this is precisely what happened with the Killer networking technology. After couple of years in Silicon Valley with Qualcomm Atheros, Killer technology returned to the place where it started – Austin, TX.
Rivet Networks, Inc. is the new name behind the Killer brand, and the team assembled around the original founders; Michael ‘Mike’ Cubbage (co-CEO), Wayne Dunlap (co-CEO) and Bob Grim (CMO). Their goal is very simple (yet complicated) to achieve; improve your networking experience, regardless if are you playing games, video streaming etc. In a way, just like audio experience took a dive after NVIDIA dropped SoundStorm and Creative Labs ventured into multi-hundred megabyte drivers, networking world was poorer, limited to simple PHY chips with ‘no brains’.
Mike Cubbage is co-founder and CEO of Rivet Networks, Inc. He started his career as a manager in Dell, Inc. managing a sales organization achieving almost three quarters of a billion US dollars in revenue, before going on to achieve his dream by co-founding Bigfoot Networks, Inc. Given his product management experience at Qualcomm and his role as VP of WW Sales, Ops and Finance at Bigfoot it could be translated into ‘ops guy meets product guy,’ and in this long interview we asked questions which Mike answered without holding back.
VRW: Mike, Killer networking technology is now back in your hands. Can you give us a bit of background into how this deal happened? Also, how it is to be free, managing a startup rather than being a part of a very large corporation?
MC: As you know, we started Bigfoot Network Inc. in 2006 and received substantial venture funding. In 2011, we were acquired by Qualcomm Atheros. Over the past four years at Qualcomm, we worked on many interesting developments, we gave Killer a big upgrade and worked on very interesting technologies, such as smart router tech called StreamBoost.
About a year ago, we decided to leave Qualcomm Atheros and become a separate business, called Rivet Networks. As a part of the process, I started to gather the team of people that made Killer great in the first place. We’re 25 (people) strong and believe in growth through serving gamers worldwide.
To answer your question, it is wonderful to be in Austin with such a talented group of people. As you know, Austin is a unique place and also a tech hotbed, with many companies developing some of key technologies that are implemented worldwide. There is Dell, AMD, Freescale, Samsung’s foundry, and excellent students coming out of University of Texas at Austin.
Being a part of Qualcomm Atheros was great to ‘grow up’ and it really brought the Killer technology a long way, but at the same time we believed we needed to increase our development and marketing efforts to really meet the needs of gamers and performance users.
VRW: Which brings us to the next question – how is Killer networking technology reaching the consumers? I believe that we all know gamers are a passionate bunch, and brand loyalty runs hard.
MC: First and foremost, there are no more stand-alone Killer NIC products out there. Instead of add-in cards, now all of our products are built into motherboards and mobile computers. We are focusing on the gaming and enthusiast market, and focusing on innovation. Since we have left Qualcomm we have actually tripled the investment in the products, and are re-engaging with the press and public so that people can better understand our products, technology, and benefits. All of this is great for enthusiast and for gamers, especially since the world changed in a big way since we originally launched in 2006.
VRW: You’re referring to eSports trend?
MC: Exactly, eSports has trickled down into mainstream gaming. eSports and the Twitch TV phenomenon really highlight the importance of networking during gaming. People want to play games and stream twitch all at the same time. The problem gamers face with this scenario today is that all the large players; Intel, Broadcom, Realtek, Qualcomm – they all focus on mass market customers. A mass market solution will break down in terms of experience, especially when multiple apps are using the network at the same time. Their focus on the mass market is understandable, but gamers have different demands and they are not getting the experience they need – with a standard networking product, gaming packets are treated just like Microsoft update packets. There is a lot of room for improving the gaming experience from a networking perspective, and that is where we focus and why Killer products are doing so well right now.
eSports are great, no doubt about it. Winners of Dota 2 championship got something like 6 million USD, League of Legends is growing strong and that is just the beginning. This is certainly a great opportunity for us.
VRW: Care to elaborate what gamers should get for seamless, for Killer experience, pardon the pun?
Just look at what we launched years ago. We have gone from an add-in card to something fully integrated. In addition, our products have improved so much which can be seen in our technology called Advanced Stream Detect. This technology detects and creates profiles for every single app that has a network connection. Every individual game is detected, recognized and optimized. That’s not all – we also detect and optimize everything and the kitchen sink. BitTorrent, Chrome, Firefox, Edge, Netflix or Hulu, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the user experience. Based on what you run, we prioritize packets in the smartest way possible.
You might be preloading a game on Steam and wanting to watch something on Netflix, so Netflix should have a priority there. We have developed a lot of optimizations to make sure game packets go out first, but also make sure your multimedia applications are receiving priority. For example, Windows Update, especially now with Windows 10 – will not and should not hog your gaming experience or interrupt your video.
There is a whole bunch of things we do to accelerate packets. Most importantly, we never queue gaming packets. As soon as one comes in – we deliver it. Our technology is all about setting different parameters for different demands. Game and voice packets are prioritized if you’re playing a game. Game has to be and is Priority 1, Voice is 2, Browsers are 3, Bulk stuff is 4 and so on.
The Killer Network Manager enables users to optimize the optimization, so to speak. Killer networking technology enables gamers to use dropdowns menus and scrollbars to optimize priority based on their personal preference. Good example is limiting game updates. Let’s say that you play a latency intensive game and download the latest update which doesn’t require latency, but needs bandwidth. We will send the latency sensitive packets first, followed by large packets of data for the download.
VRW: How are you optimizing for Ultra HD video, for example?
MC: Let’s take Amazon Prime Video for example. We’re detecting and optimizing the video stream and enable Ultra HD video without glitches. Glitches do not happen just because your internet connection has issues – in most cases, 25-50Mbps should be enough for perfect Ultra HD experience. Yet, there are so many things that take away the priority that the end result is choppy even on a high bandwidth connection.
VRW: Which is sad in a way. I rely on 100Mbps in San Diego, 200Mbps wired and 350Mbps LTE-A in Zagreb and 1Gbps wired and 300Mbps LTE-A in Singapore – and the streaming experience is often less than satisfactory.
MC: Let me demonstrate that. We test on two identical systems, one has standard networking (Intel, Broadcom, etc) and one has Killer networking (either wired or wireless). My Internet access is ‘only’ 20Mbps. We’ve turned on the video stream, an online game, and a game patch – who does single tasking these days anyways? In this scenario, the standard solution freezes the video over ten times in just two minutes. And you had 20Mbps with 7Mbps video stream, and maybe a 100 Kbps game stream, and a common download. Once we switch to Killer, there is no freezing. Your game runs at the same low latency it did before the other apps were started, your video gets the next level of priority which is plenty to keep it smooth and enjoyable, and the game patch takes whatever bandwidth is left over.
The World of Killer Today
VRW: Can you tell us what is the main focus for Killer, how your focus reflects on product lines, what is offered today and what are plans for the future?
MC: A lot of problems with standard networking products are related to those products only focusing on max-throughput instead of the user experience. Killer products have great throughput, but providing a great user experience is our #1 goal. And this reflects our product philosophy. We received feedback from our partners and the key move was to bring the price down and simplicity up. We listened to them, stopped selling discrete networking cards and worked with Qualcomm to create a 5×5 millimeter piece of silicon for Killer Ethernet and a standard M.2 Wi-Fi module for Killer Wireless. By mixing excellent hardware with excellent software we were able to deliver a high performance product at the right price, put all the technology and functionality into the onboard chip and worked with our partners to design it into motherboards and notebooks.
We have achieved all the performance (of discrete parts), and even surpassed it in many ways. The functionality is now vastly expanded – and you do get to experience that difference. Big things that changed with Killer was to reduce the cost, and no longer use proprietary processors – it’s a GbE PHY chip or a Wi-Fi module. Everything we do is based squeezing all the performance out of our hardware and then figuring out how to optimize the network. We no longer have the need to have a coprocessor at all.
VRW: You guys used the chip from one of your Austin neighbors, Freescale – right?
MC: Right, it was a Power processor. When Intel came out with the new Core I series, their processor performance was much faster and we found a coprocessor concept was no longer adding the value it used to. We have figured out many other ways to deliver best in class Ethernet performance. For our Wi-Fi lineup, we do add extra hardware. For example, Europe uses real walls instead of wood, and Asia is loaded with steel construction which can cause interference. We use extra hardware amplifiers that give you that additional range, to cover more of your apartment or house, regardless of build materials used.
VRW: Another focus of Killer is bridging the Wi-Fi to Ethernet gap, correct? How is product lineup stacking up to address all the needs of customers and gamers?
MC: The Killer 1535 with ExtremeRange Technology is the first 2×2 802.11ac Wi-Fi module to be multi-user MIMO enabled. The Killer 1535 with multi-user MIMO can achieve up to 60% more throughput in a household with multiple devices than a comparable non multi-user MIMO product. The number of devices in the house is constantly increasing. Five years ago, you had computers, few laptops and maybe a few phones on a home network. Today, practically everyone has a tablet, smartphone, notebook, desktop, or TV – the number of devices is growing exponentially and multi-user MIMO is essential to providing the best possible experience.
One of our cool Technologies is Killer Double Shot Pro. We take advantage of systems that contain both Killer Wireless and Killer Ethernet, and allow them to work together in an intelligent way. By using both interfaces at the same time, you can increase your max throughput up to 1.6Gbps, hook up to two different broadband networks at the same time, and we offer “Smart Path Selection” which allows us to choose which network traffic goes over which interface (your highest priority application… usually your game… goes over your connection with the lowest latency). All of this is an example of using innovation to give users the best possible experience.
We are also working to improve the gaming experience over a Wi-Fi connection. We see gamers buying beautiful notebooks and then hooking up via Ethernet all the time. We work to eliminate the Wi-Fi latency as much as we can – for example, we’re now down to less than 250 microseconds (0.25 milliseconds) of system generated latency with our Ethernet product and after a lot of hard work we are down to less than 1 millisecond of system latency on our Wireless product. Ethernet is still a bit faster, but gaming over Wi-Fi is now a viable option even for real gamers.
There’s no denying that networking is some of the hardest stuff to test in the world. The amount of issues out of your control is just staggering – potential issues and variables in Ethernet, Wi-Fi configuration, computer, router, your network modem, server and ISP issues, and there are more! While Killer can’t fix all your network issues, we promise to give you the best possible usage of the bandwidth you do have.
VRW: Do you have issues with ISP companies?
MC: In the US, the situation is as you know – quite complicated. We don’t have any issues with ISP companies, but for real-time packets such as games we tag them to let the router/ISP know which packets are most important … but several of the providers strip this type of information as soon as they get the packet.
VRW: What about the competition?
U.S. Internet Service Providers have an issue that they allow approximately half of high-priority packets to go through, and then strip priority from packets for the other half. We cannot discuss publically which ISP’s are the worst, but there are cases where they let the router do the (prioritizing) job, and when packets hit their network, they just strip all the priority and then choose their own priorities. What is interesting is that game developers don’t tag high priority on their own game data packages, while they could improve their network code.
Killer is absolutely the underdog (marketing budget, etc.) when we go up against bigger companies to compete for motherboard or notebook design wins. Our partners put us through hundreds of hours of both standard networking tests as well as application performance tests. Our partners will take nothing less than the best performance and we are proud to be shipping both the Killer 1535 and E2400 to MSI, Gigabyte, Acer, Alienware and several announcements that will happen soon.
Our goal is to offer our technology to as many gamers as possible, and we know what we need to do in order to offer great experiences at an affordable price.
Killer to Enter Virtual Reality? Stay Tuned
VRW: Gaming on a display is nice, but we’re reaching the dawn of Augmented and Virtual Reality. Is Killer doing anything on that front, or is it too early for VR/AR optimizations?
MC: First and foremost, we do not have a VR product… yet. We are working into removing wires from the experience, and as we come with stuff – we will keep your readers in the loop. The industry is having a lot of conversations about different implementations, and one of biggest challenges to solve is not power or bandwidth.
VRW: AMD and NVIDIA both speak a lot about the need for 90 frames per second, which is 50% more than the ‘ideal’ 60Hz on the conventional displays. That means every frame has to be rendered not with 100ms per frame, but with 66ms per frame. That requires a lot of GPU horsepower, but what about the input and data transfer from the server.
MC: We’re aware that VR needs even better network optimizations in order to achieve realistic and enjoyable sessions. We have released Killer spec to VR companies and there needs to be a lot of prioritizing and packet optimization when it comes to moving the data back and forth from the machine to network and back.
We believe this is just the introduction into the newly revamped world of Killer networking technology, and after hearing about the new products coming in line for the 2015 Holiday season, CES 2016, Game Developer Conference, E3 and more – there is plenty of ‘killer news’ (pun intended) coming your way.
We wish to thank Mike and Bob for their time.