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Beef up embedded systems with ATCA

Posted: 01 Apr 2008     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Advanced Telecommunications Computing Architecture  ATCA  PICMG 3.0  IP multimedia subsystems 

Stephen Huang
Huang: As more comms apps were deployed using ATCA, EEs discovered the benefits it brought to security and imaging embedded applications.

Since the introduction of Advanced Telecommunications Computing Architecture (ATCA), we have seen several carriers announce support for ATCA in next-generation platforms. Telecoms equipment manufacturers are now seeing requests for quotes from carriers that specify ATCA. Although ATCA was architected with telecoms requirements in mind, we have started to see some movement in non-telecoms applications for ATCA.

As vendors of ATCA products move toward integration we are starting to see a new concept occur. Instead of users purchasing and integrating blade-level building blocks, we see the emergence of application-ready platforms. These platforms are built on standards-based off-the-shelf building blocks. From a user's standpoint, the platform purchased is ready for application specific software. No need to worry about blade/backplane/switch compatibility, and there is one vendor to handle support calls. We have seen this application emerging in the market in high-end machine-vision systems.

Emerging trends
The evolution of technology and the never-ending thirst for higher bandwidth from industries and applications are pushing the limits of existing standards. The latest processors run faster and integrate more features, thus requiring greater power, more efficient cooling design, and a larger board size. The explosion of bandwidth in enterprise LANs brought on by the deployment of Gigabit Ethernet, 3G/WiMAX mobile communication, and wireless network systems and the growth of triple-play or multi-play network services have all fuelled the demand for servicing greater amounts of data traffic. High availability (HA) is another necessity for today's industries and applications. The five-nines (99.999 percent) metric is vital for the uptime service of systems, especially when such systems are used to deploy value-added services or critical communication transaction-based services for which downtime equals revenue lost. Most of the HA systems today are vendor proprietary designs. A hefty engineering investment is required to develop the system hardware from the scratch each time there is a technology upgrade. The obvious current trend is the adoption of open-standard technologies with customisation wherever possible. Reduced margins, increased technology costs, rapid hardware obsolescence and high competition have also given even greater weight to a standards-based model.

CompactPCI vs. AdvancedTCA
Table 1: Summary of hard real-time design patterns.

ATCA, also known as PICMG 3.0, is a new set of open-standard specifications defining a common platform for high-performance, next-generation telecom and datacom applications. The goal of the ATCA standard is to provide an open platform standard to meet the needs of telecom infrastructure equipment for the next decade. Over 100 companies and more than 11,000 person-hours went into developing the ATCA specifications over a period of 15 months. Compared to its predecessor, the CompactPCI standard (PICMG 2.0), ATCA offers far greater bandwidth, greater power and cooling capabilities, larger board real estate, the integration of base-level system management, and the removal of parallel buses that may cause a single point of failure.

The key benefits of the ATCA platform include a faster time-to-market and a lower overall development costs. The specification is defined on a modular concept providing for an assortment of building blocks ranging from silicon solutions, boards, chassis, middleware and operating systems to applications. The benefits to equipment manufacturers are many, as these standards-based building blocks will

allow for a lower cost of market entry and investment costs, more efficient inventory management, and a focus on higher value-added differential services while delivering cost-competitive products.

IP multimedia subsystems
Applications exemplifying the benefits of the ATCA standard include IP multimedia subsystems (IMS)?a standardized IP-based architecture that allows the convergence of fixed and mobile communication devices, multiple network types and multimedia applications. Future IMS-based applications will combine voice, text, images and video in seamless call sessions, offering significant ease-of-use to subscribers and allowing service providers to deliver content through a common interface, while substantially reducing operating costs. To get these services to market for subscribers, the network equipment providers need a computer platform, which can combine multiple IMS in one physical platform and can be flexible for expansion. The ATCA form factor is suitable for IMS application due to the fact that all ATCA blades communicate with each other via packet-switching fabrics. Additional chassis can also be seamlessly integrated with minor reconfiguration of the fabric switches. Shelves typically consist of multiple commercial off-the-shelf CPU blades, purpose-built blades and signal processor blades. Processors are used to run application services such as voice recognisers, text-to-speech processing, web servers and highly available RAID storage. Purpose-built ATCA blades are typically used for voice encoding/decoding, video transcoder adaptors, echo cancellation and high-capacity network connectivity with QoS (IPv6).

High-end net security
Traditional network security solutions based on inspection firewalls leave networks vulnerable to content-based attacks, such as viruses, worms, spyware and spam. Internet service providers and carriers urgently need to deliver advanced security services to protect their customers from the increasing number and complexity of content-based attacks. While a number of security solutions are available for deployment at the enterprise side, only a few can scale to handle the carrier-grade performance requirements, or the enterprise core networks. The ATCA platform provides a powerful and scalable solution for the high-end in-line network security systems. The 200W power budget per blade and efficient cooling design provide enough headroom for the latest dual-core server class processors to unleash the computing power for extensive content-filtering algorithms. The high-speed fabric interconnects provide up to 10Gbps data throughput per channel to allow a continuous flow of packets traffic between computing and switch blades without downgrading the in-line speed. The ATCA chassis allows up to 14 slots to maximise the computing density and optimise the space occupation.

Machine vision equipment providers are continually seeking higher-performance computers that are capable of executing complex algorithms for image processing and products that are cost-effective and offer a faster time-to-market. Automatic Optical Inspection (AOI) applications typically require higher resolution imaging, displaying, storing, real-time visualisation and data processing, which will consume all available computing power. A common configuration for an AOI application is a server-level computer with dual dual-core processors and a PCI-X or PCIe frame grabber. However, when multiple cameras are needed, multiple servers are required for an effective AOI system. These servers take up valuable space and entail a considerable amount of administration and maintenance, especially when considering the challenge of managing data exchange between systems. Utilising ATCA equipment in an advanced vision platform not only saves a considerable amount of space, but also helps reduce the large mesh of cables and interconnections between computers. ATCA blades are hot-swappable, thus ensuring that removing any blade does not require complete shutdown of the entire system. A dual-processor ATCA blade installed with a state-of-the-art dual Camera-Link 64bit/66MHz PMC module can handle two high-resolution cameras. And a five-slot ATCA fully meshed chassis can support up to 10 high-throughput cameras, reducing five separate high-end servers into a single 5U rack mount system.

ATCA in embedded
Although ATCA is a suitable solution for embedded applications requiring high performance computing capability implemented by multiple computing blades, the ATCA standard has some characteristics that are very different from the traditional embedded computer platforms. Generic embedded applications based on the ATCA platform will need to be designed with support for the 48VDC power input specification. This power requirement helps maximise power efficiency and makes it easier to implement the hot-swappable power supply circuit. However, 48VDC power supplies are not common outside of telecom applications. Shelf management controllers (ShMC), a critical feature for equipment operators to remotely manage the ATCA shelf and blades, are commonly available on ATCA platforms. Most ATCA chassis even support dual redundant ShMCs. However, for embedded applications, if an ShMC is not required, a system can be designed without ShMC support to lower cost of ownership of an ATCA platform. Most ATCA chassis are developed for telecom applications that typically require support for as many blades and switches as possible. Embedded applications may need only one or two slots, yet such an ATCA chassis may not be available.

The ATCA specifications were originally defined with telecom applications in mind. Yet as more and more communication applications were deployed using ATCA, it was soon discovered that some of the benefits, such as fault tolerance, redundancy, easy interconnection between computing blades and higher communication bandwidth are also ideal for security and imaging embedded applications.

Huang: As more and more communication applications were deployed using ATCA, it was soon discovered that the benefits are also ideal for security and imaging embedded applications.

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