Motherboard chip sets don't normally excite much attention in the security world, but nVidia's NForce 4 could turn out to be the exception.

Better known for its graphics chips, Nvidia has become the first to release a motherboard controller that makes it possible to build a hardware firewall within a PC itself.

The catch is that the new PCI-based chip set will only work with AMD Athlon 64, 64 FX, and AMD’s new budget Sempron processors. It is not clear whether the chip set will be made to work in Intel systems at a later date.

Although software firewalls are effective on PCs, the NForce 4 "ActiveArmor" protection engine claims to carry out its security routines without hindering the performance of the PC, acting as an "accelerated" co-processor. This should improve system performance by unburdening the main CPU from having to process network traffic.

ActiveArmor's firewall functions look fairly standard, and include packet inspection, port filtering and other anti-hacking features as well as remote administration which is a must for IT departments.

More interesting to businesses in the light of recent history will be the application filtering features of what nVidia has dubbed "intelligent application manager" (IAM). This, it is claimed, will stop Trojans hijacking the PC to use it as a server and will perform sophisticated monitoring of outbound as well as inbound application traffic.

The chip set has been released in three versions. The mid-level "Ultra", which is likely to be the most popular, comes with an integrated firewall, and support for 3GB serial RAID (including advanced failover detection), and will add approximately (£55-£80) to the price of a motherboard, the company indicated.

The £110 high-end NForce 4 SLI is identical but includes a technology called Scalable Link Interface (SLI), a means of running two graphics cards in one system to boost graphics performance. The entry-level £30 NForce relies on cut-down software-based firewall features and lacked the SLI, but will come with a lower-performance version of the RAID support.
The company says it expects the chip set's price to reduce as volumes increased in the coming months.