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October 15, 2008

ATCA Gained Momentum in 2008

By Richard Grigonis, Executive Editor, IP Communications Group

ATCA (also known commonly as AdvancedTCA (News - Alert)) is the successor to the CompactPCI form factor in computing. It targets the high-end telecom market with its powerful, high-density “central office-in-a-box” capabilities that you just don’t encounter in a desktop computer. In fact, there’s no PCI or any kind of parallel bus in ATCA, since it’s designed to accommodate the new high-bandwidth switch fabrics, such as 10 Gbps Ethernet, PCI Express, RapidIO and InfiniBand. ATCA is so powerful that a whole separate computing platform form factor, MicroTCA, has appeared that allows you to plug ATCA add-on Mezzanine cards (AMCs) into its small-footprint backplane.
Telecom equipment manufacturers (TEMs) and network equipment providers (NEPs) are developing new generations of standards-based products to handle the convergence of communications technologies. Through ATCA, they are taking advantage of reduced costs and development time while offering high reliability.
Continuous Computing, for example, devises heavy-duty ATCA systems running such things as their own Trillium protocol software. The company recently announced a ground-breaking product set that addresses the 3rd Generation Partnership Project’s (3GPP) Long Term Evolution (LTE) wireless standard, also sometimes categorized as “4G Wireless” and a possible “successor” to WiMAX (News - Alert).
LTE will ultimately support amazing mobile broadband data rates of 100 Mbps downlink and 50 Mbps uplink, simultaneous voice and data sessions, and low round-trip latency to support real-time applications such as online gaming and mobile TV. In comparison, today’s 3G networks can achieve peak data rates of 14 Mbps with High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) but only in very select areas of coverage, and 3G voice and data sessions are mutually exclusive. Continuous Computing is said to be the first systems vendor to introduce an end-to-end offering that spans the entire range of LTE network infrastructure ranging from the Home eNodeB (Macro / Pico base stations) to the Evolved Packet Core (EPC). (Network operators have already declared their support for the LTE standard, including AT&T, KDDI, NTT DoCoMo, PCS Metro, T-Mobile, and Vodafone, among others.)
Mike Coward, CTO and Co-Founder of Continuous Computing, says, “Our focus within ATCA has been at the top of the performance curve — very challenging systems. In particular, the area that we’ve found that’s really doing well for ATCA is in the construction of Deep Packet Inspection [DPI] platforms. Think of large-scale traffic management systems that are being installed in carrier networks, or the content-filtering systems, that make up one of the most technically-challenging areas of the network. This is because the data rates are going from 1 gig to 10 gig to 40 gig. Considering the amount of processing that you need per packet at those speeds — and all sorts of systems functions to get the packets around the system - you need very advanced switching and load balancing. ATCA is a really strong fit, especially for us. The whole area is just exploding in terms of demand for systems. For us, DPI is the marquee application that’s defining the top end of the performance range, and it influencing everything that we do at a product level.”
“With greater production numbers, ATCA is coming down in cost,” says Coward. “Specifically, it’s coming down in terms of price-per-performance. If you measure it in terms of the amount of data or the number of calls you can process in box, ATCA can often now be the least expensive option, not the most expensive. That’s just because the data rate through ATCA can be so incredibly high.”
“There was a great turning point in 2008 in the market,” says Coward. “The market research companies for the first time are now raising the forecast for ATCA sales, year-over-year. Like any new technology, ATCA took time to get designed into carriers, and adopted by equipment manufacturers. But now that it has taken hold, the market research companies are actually scrambling and saying that their previous forecasts were too low.”
“These systems are so complicated that they take years to be developed and get tested and certified,” says Coward. “But once they make it in into the network, you can see explosive growth in both their numbers and what they can do.”
Big, Bigger, Biggest
You can’t talk about ATCA without mentioning Kontron AG, perhaps the biggest player in the embedded computer solutions and custom-engineer services business. It acquired Teknor Applicom in July 1999, ICS Advent (formerly called Industrial Computer Source) in an all-cash transaction in 2001, PEP Modular Computers September 2000, and JUMPtec Industrielle Computertechnik AG in August 2002. Recently, Kontron acquired Intel’s (News - Alert) Communication Rackmount Server operation of 1U, 2U carrier-grade rackmount and IP network security server products.
David Pursley, Field Applications Engineer, says, “Kontron offers an extensive portfolio of AdvancedTCA platform elements including multi-core processor boards, switches and AdvancedMC carrier boards. Of course, we still develop in other form factors, such as our new CompactPCI-based CP6016.” (See my September 2008 Nitty-Gritty column in INTERNET TELEPHONY magazine for a closer look at this powerful little board.)
Kontron’s ATCA integrated platforms include the 2-slot Kontron OM9020 series of open modular platforms (OMPs); various forms of the 6-slot Kontron OM9060, such as the Kontron OM9060 Media platform for media processing applications, the Kontron OM9060 Gateway platform communication systems targeting applications that need to convert control traffic and media traffic between TDM and IP networks with high availability, the Kontron OM9060 for session and transaction oriented-applications that place high demands on the processing of transactions at low latency. There’s also the hefty, high-density, 14-slot Kontron OM9140 series of open modular platforms that are integrated, validated and tested to get new carrier-grade application designs to market as fast as possible.
Another major player is Elma Electronic of Fremont, California. Its huge selection of AdvancedTCA and MicroTCA system platform solutions includes ATCA modular enclosures in 2U, 4U, 5U, and 13U heights and MicroTCA subracks in 1U-8U heights. Elma also offers portable cube MicroTCA chassis and rugged MicroTCA enclosures in ATR and rackmount styles.
Elma pioneered AC-powered versions of ATCA enclosures with its 2U and 5U horizontal-mount designs. These chassis are also available in 48V DC. The 4U and 13U versions are DC-only. The 2nd-generation 13U carrier-grade chassis meets the requirement of at least 20-30 percent airflow in each of the 4 regions of the ATCA blade. This ensures even airflow distribution and helps to prevent hot spots. The chassis is cooled via three individually removable fan trays. Each tray has two 250 to 420 CFM (cubic feet per minute) airflow fans with PWM (Pulse (News - Alert) Width Modulation) control. A honeycomb air filter below the fans maximizes air intake while a NEBS-compliant air filter above the fans ensures even air distribution. The fans are also positioned to provide up to 140 CFM airflow over the RTMs (rear transition modules).
Making Friends
RadiSys Corporation has long been a force in the embedded computing space. Its hardware can be found in the guise of Internet routers, ultrasound machines, MRI imagers, and other mission-critical, carrier-grade and standards-based sophisticated systems. They’ve been immersed quite some time in the world of ATCA, COM Express, and other technologies, which powers products from Comverse, Nokia, Nortel (News - Alert) Networks, Philips Medical, Siemens, etc.
Keate Despain, Senior Director of Product Marketing “A year ago, RadiSys acquired certain assets of Intel’s modular communications platforms business, which advanced our leadership position in ATCA platforms and solutions for telecom equipment manufacturers worldwide. It added many new customers and engineering capabilities. From that we’ve filled out the portfolio of products that we offer. For example we offer the highest density DSP cards in the marketplace, for 10 Gbps fabrics.”
“In terms of rounding out our portfolio,” says Despain, “we focus not just on providing building blocks as does our competition, but a complete, application-ready platform built on our 10 gig solution that we have in the market, called the Promentum family.”
“Recently we announced a network-ready ATCA platform that supports the Service Availability Forum [SA Forum] Application Interface Specification [AIS],” says Despain. “Basically we’ve integrated our RadiSys Promentum platform, with GoAhead SAFfire AIS standards-based high availability middleware, an attractive combination for Telecom Equipment Manufacturers [TEMs] that will enable the rapid deployment of revenue-generating applications. We first announced a platform based on GoAhead SelfReliant and RadiSys Promentum technology in 2006, and we’ve signed seven new joint customers since then. Our integrated solution supports, right out of the box, platform management, high availability and system management. In particular it supports resource discovery and system model instantiation, shelf manager integration, alarm management, hot swap management and integration with RadiSys-specific systems management capabilities. Thanks to the SAForum’s Hardware Platform Interface [HPI], this functionality can be extended to RadiSys’ complete ATCA portfolio of products including carrier blades, chassis, disk modules, line cards, processing modules and switch modules.”
Virtually Everywhere
VirtualLogix of Sunnyvale, California, is known for its Real-Time Virtualization technology for connected devices. An Affiliate member of the Intel Embedded and Communications Alliance, a community of communications and embedded developers and solutions providers committed to the development of modular, standards-based solutions on Intel technologies, VirtualLogix VLX enables multiple OS environments to run concurrently on shared hardware, providing a range of performance, fault tolerance and security options. In 2007 VirtualLogix took home the best-in-show at the AdvancedTCA Summit.
Fadi Nasser, Director of Product Management at VirtualLogix, says, “Our roadmap has evolved tremendously since 2007. We’ve released a number of product lines, and not just on Intel multi-core, but on PowerPC, on multi-core DSPs and on the latest and greatest from ARM. We’re also talking with a number of the MIPS64 core variants such as Cavium’s. So our product lines are moving along quite nicely. We’re become close partners with a number of ATCA board vendors, mainly RadiSys and Emerson Network Power. We’ve been discussing new demo scenarios and proof-of-concepts with those guys. And we’ve seen a lot of activity on the ATCA front increase. What has moved this along quite nicely is the latest release of our VLX-enabled High Availability [vHA] product line that provides fault recovery and system management services across virtual and physical domains in virtualized embedded systems.”
“Basically we’re still a virtualization company first and foremost,” says Nasser. “However, we noticed that virtualization in the embedded world and in especially in the networking world, breaks some of the assumptions about middleware prevalent in the networking cloud that have existed for a long time. For example, HA [High Availability] software is nothing new, and is a staple in the networking space. However, when you introduce virtualization in the middle of a networking stack, the HA assumptions in terms of which application, which OS running on what piece of hardware, and so forth are challenged because there’s a virtualization layer in the middle separating the software from the hardware. The migration to multi-core processors often demands a drastic revision of software – both application and middleware - that assumes the traditional uniprocessor paradigm. This can be a serious impediment to the adoption of multi-core processors now integrated on ATCA processor blades.”
Nasser elaborates: “We’ve focused on this area for the networking space and we released our first delivery of what we call vHA, which is virtualization-enabled HA software, back in March 2008. This is quite an exciting area for us because we deal in multi-core and virtualization, and there’s been a tremendous wave behind this technology, and it’s being pushed into all sorts of networking devices, particularly at the high end and the ATCA space. Our vHA gives us a great tool to bridge the gap between traditional software out there in the networking cloud and all this legacy investment by networking OEMs. It gives them a way to bridge their investment with the wave over technology, such as multi-core and virtualization. Thus, our advancements in virtualization technology now make it possible to bring the benefits of virtualization to next-gen network equipment design, answering the needs of ATCA network infrastructure equipment makers to create high performance products with reduced cost, including lower Bill-of-Materials [BOM], development costs, and improved reliability.”
With its high density, powerful processing capabilities, top-notch high availability and decreasing price, ATCA platforms will slowly dominate the telecom world’s infrastructure for quite a few years to come.

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Richard Grigonis is Executive Editor of TMC�s IP Communications Group. To read more of Richard�s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Mae Kowalke

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