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Filling the holes on the highway to a healthy AdvancedTCA ecosystem
[July 12, 2007]

Filling the holes on the highway to a healthy AdvancedTCA ecosystem

By Yariv Golan-Atir

AdvancedTCA (News - Alert) development continues to be on the cusp of next-generation carrier grade communications equipment. Yariv asks engineers to “think vertical” and “think horizontal” as they visualize standardizing AdvancedTCA and consider such issues as connecting interfaces, system integration, and interoperability.

From the start AdvancedTCA initiators and advocates have aimed high. For every given parameter, they wanted more, and better. In fact, they sought much better rather than just better. The PICMG consortium founders confronted three of the most troubling bottlenecks of many modern telecom systems: power, space, and bandwidth. The solution was impressive: 200 W per blade (recently pushing towards 400 W), more than twice the space CompactPCI affords, and 2.4 TBps for the full-blown chassis.

Does AdvancedTCA fit?
Was this solution good enough? As a framework, yes, but from a practical perspective, not really. To make it work, those of us in the telecom ecosystem built on that framework with some much needed inner workings. For starters, we added an advanced and (more important) standard management mechanism, followed by built-in high-availability capabilities to allow for redundancy, an essential in telco environments. Finally, we brought in a mix and match approach, fully supported by the AdvancedMC (News - Alert) modular architecture.

After developing the framework and making the standard public, we set about developing a healthy ecosystem. Today, one can select a multitude of off-the-shelf elements from a rich variety of vendors, covering all types of hardware and software: chassis, backplanes, processing and DSP blades, switches, signaling, and line interface cards are all generally available and ready to go. The selection can be overwhelming, and everyone who is someone in the server and COTS blade industry has an AdvancedTCA portfolio. Another sign indicating this ecosystem’s robust health is the launching by most Tier 1 network equipment manufacturers of an AdvancedTCA-based portfolio along with their proprietary product lines.

We are making great progress, but are we prepared for actual system integration? Can we really pick a chassis, add management modules and stacks, plug in some of the finest high-end processing blades, and then head straight into developing a killer application? Can we make our vision a reality?

The road ahead goes in two directions, vertical and horizontal. The vertical direction connects the interfaces between the different layers within a system while the horizontal direction ensures interoperability between different systems/elements and allows integration into a complete solution.

Think vertical
The relatively new standardization effort of the Service Availability Forum (SAF) answered the requirements for vertical progress. The SAF is a consortium of communication and computing companies that has joined forces to develop high availability and management software interface specifications. This specification is mainly defined by the Application Interface Specification (AIS) and the Hardware Platform Interface (HPI (News - Alert)). These standards define the interfaces between hardware and management software, resulting in the ability to build effective, high availability mechanisms. The adoption is quite impressive and is becoming a de facto industry standard.

But let's take a moment here to play devil's advocate: We know that the high availability features (99.999 percent), essential for most telco grade equipment, are also known to be in the core of the proprietary know-how for any system designing vendor. Is it too presumptuous to assume this can be standardized?

The answer is yes and no. We are seeing signs that this is feasible as there are a few software/firmware packages being offered to answer this need. In a nutshell, these tools are formalizing standard resource allocation and redundancy mechanisms that can be customized quite elegantly to almost system architecture. Will it actually hold water? Maybe it's a bit too soon to say, but judging by the feedback of a few software vendors, there are good potentials, specifically within Tier 2 and 3 Network Equipment Providers (NEPs), probably since they do not carry the same heavy burden of legacy proprietary know-how as Tier 1 NEPs. Let's not forget that these types of solutions owe their existence to the recently adopted industry standards (AIS and HPI set by the SAF). It's a long process, and penetration is difficult, but the curve is at the right gradient.

Now, think horizontal
A horizontal focus is on ensuring interoperability between different elements. One might ask, "What's the big deal with interoperability? Don't we have a well-defined standard? Can't we pick what we like off the shelves of the ecosystem supermarket and let the standard do the rest?"

Don't be surprised if real life proves different. Every engineer with sound practices can sense that open standards are a bit too good to be true. It may be a nice concept, but someone has to check it to make it work. Interoperability is the key here.

The good news is that a few groups have recently been established to answer this need. Here is a quick tour of the interoperability standards bodies:

The CP-TA is an association of equipment providers with a charter to expand the adoption of open standards by setting the framework for interoperability certification. Its goal is to drive the market towards a standard platform. This association believes the way to achieve this is by creating an ecosystem of pre-certified building blocks and platforms. This initiative is the first time we can see this issue being mastered in a practical sense, by defining what has to be pre-tested, organizing the forums, and certifying the interoperable elements. Previously, all interoperability was vendor-to-vendor specific and rarely open to others in the industry. CP-TA focuses on AdvancedTCA and works closely with PICMG and SAF and thereby, in a way, completes the picture.

Another significant forum is the SCOPE alliance that was established by leading NEPs such as Alcatel, Ericsson, Motorola (News - Alert), NEC, Nokia, and Siemens. These NEPs are interested in creating a stable ecosystem, but, more than that, in ensuring that vendors will know what is expected of them in order to provide the building blocks for carrier grade equipment. In other words, adhering to AdvancedTCA is nice, but it's not enough. SCOPE will review industry standards (AdvancedTCA, SAF, OSDL), list important attributes that are of necessity, and indicate the requirements that need to be filled by the vendors. SCOPE then creates a profile that is a subset of the relevant specifications reflecting requirements of interfaces and building blocks sufficient for building carrier grade platforms. SCOPE will also provide reference architectures that serve as a set of guidelines for building carrier grade systems.

The CP-TA takes SCOPE profiles into consideration when it defines its test protocols. Noticeably, all these bodies are quite coherent and synchronized to the benefit of the designing vendors aiming at the service provider and telco markets. Assemble these parts of the puzzle, and we can begin to see a more complete and comprehensive picture: starting from the hardware layers, continuing with management, control and high availability protocols, through interoperability of different elements, and finally ensuring that it will all meet the real-life requirements of the target customers.

Following the application roadmap
Another good indication of the health and maturity of our growing ecosystem is the evolution of the applications that are targeted by the vendors. In the early days, vendors provided mainly data and control layer applications to set the infrastructure of networks. Nowadays, the aim is more to provide revenue-generating applications driven by the adoption of 3G networks and the growing adoption of IP Multimedia Subsystems (IMS) architecture. Looking at the ecosystem, we see this market influencing a growing variety of voice and video processing elements being released and made available. The industry grew from generic and general purpose processing elements to an era of application specific and optimized media processing building blocks.

Media processing blades were one of the most sensitive elements suffering from bottlenecks in the former architectures (Remember power, bandwidth, and space?), so they're now expected to flourish with AdvancedTCA. For example, AudioCodes' (News - Alert) IPM-1610, a media processing blade reaching the power limits of CompactPCI, is capable of 480 voice channels. The capacity of AudioCodes' IPM-12610 AdvancedTCA blade (Figure 1) will be 4,032 channels. This change is dramatic. It impacts the cost and space efficiency of the whole solution. Isn't this, in fact, what we aspired towards in the first place, when developing AdvancedTCA?

[Figure 1]

Approaching the finish line
By examining AdvancedTCA's evolution on the whole, we can be proud to have developed such a healthy ecosystem. Besides its rich diversity, it is clear that good health is not only about the number of vendors or the variety of available components. There are other more critical elements needed to make this bundle stick together. They are:

• A well-defined set of service provider requirements, defined by the SCOPE Alliance
• A robust set of interoperability tests defined by
CP-TA, aimed at easing integration pains
• Complementary standards such as SAF
• Software packages designed to formalize the high availability mechanism, which until now has been kept well hidden in obscure proprietary zones

Let's not forget that there is still a long way to go for a significant industry adoption of open standards. AdvancedTCA adoption is not yet common practice. The secret is interaction and communication between all members of the community. The more we interact, test, interoperate, and learn from each other, the more our solutions will be ready to use, the more rapidly deployable they'll become, and the more commercially attractive they'll be.

If we stay on this course and work together as an industry, we'll eventually reach the finish line and be able to deliver highly reliable and interoperable systems.

Yariv Golan-Atir holds an MBA from the Tel-Aviv University and a BSc. degree in Computer Engineering from the Israel Institute of Technology. He joined AudioCodes in 1999 and is a director of product marketing for the blade business line, with a main responsibility for AdvancedTCA products.

To learn more, contact Yariv at:
AudioCodes, Ltd.
1 HaYarden Street
Airport City, Israel 70151

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