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ATCA remains the technology of choice for telecomms applications

The Advanced Telecommunications Computing Architecture, or ATCA, has been in the market for more than a decade. Ratified by industry group PICMG in December 2002, the standard was the largest development effort in the organisation's history, involving more than 100 companies.

While ATCA was developed originally to meet the next generation communications needs of telecomms related applications, the standard has also been adapted for ruggedised applications, mainly in the military and aerospace sectors, but also in physics research.

Todd Wynia, vice president, communications products, with Artesyn Embedded Products, explained why ATCA was developed. "It was designed to incorporate the latest trends in high speed interconnect technologies, next generation processors and improved reliability, manageability and serviceability.

"One objective of the effort was to create a specification for applications requiring more performance than the bus architecture standards commonly deployed at the time for telecom applications, such as CompactPCI and VMEbus."

The initiative also looked to move the market from one based on proprietary equipment to open systems, in which the various elements of an ATCA system could be sourced from a range of suppliers.

With its target market of communications in mind, one of the foundations of ATCA is reliability, availability and serviceability. Essentially, ATCA systems were expected to be reliable, but if there were problems they could be fixed quickly by swapping out an element.

Today, ATCA is firmly entrenched in a number of comms applications. Wynia noted: "Some applications in particular have been strong adopters of ATCA, including media gateways and voice and video transcoding between networks. Mobile data optimisation has been another strong market, with equipment sitting close to the edge of the wireless network, helping to optimise the data flow."

But in today's more security oriented world, another key application is deep packet inspection (DPI). "This has been part of Artesyn's portfolio for the last five or six years," Wynia continued. "Today, instead of one blade within an ATCA system doing DPI, we're seeing entire systems devoted to the task."

All of this means business is good for companies supplying components to the ATCA market. "I see the market as being worth about $500million a year," Wynia said, "and showing high single digit growth per year. Artesyn's business is growing more quickly and I think we'll see an increase in sales this year of more than 20%."

A 'cut down' version of the standard, called MicroTCA, appeared shortly after ATCA was ratified. The approach allowed Advanced Mezzanine Cards – essentially daughter boards for ATCA blades – to be plugged directly into the backplane. Although it was expected to find wide application in embedded systems, the market for MicroTCA hasn't developed as anticipated. "Artesyn didn't see enough interest in the technology, so we left the market," Wynia noted.

Modularity has allowed ATCA to keep up with demand. "Over the last couple of years," Wynia pointed out, "we have seen a shift from 10G to 40Gbit/s data transmission. And there has been continued adoption of 40G."

He added that one development enabling new applications is the availability of dual star and dual-dual star (or quad star) arrangements (see fig 1). "In a typical ATCA platform, there will be one working network and one redundant network; or a dual star," Wynia explained. "Now, ATCA systems can support up to four networks on the backplane, so there could be three active systems and one on standby, or even four active networks if no redundancy is required. In this case, data throughput is up to 160Gbit/s. That's one of the things which makes ATCA attractive for DPI type applications, which have wide bandwidth requirements."

And that's the story for ATCA; customers want faster processors and more memory. "We use a mix of processors," Wynia said, "with the Intel architecture dominant. But we are making increasing use of processors from companies such as Cavium for DPI applications and DSPs for voice and video transcoding."

However, more processing power means higher power consumption and increased thermal load. "We've built our own chassis for some years," Wynia pointed out, "so we are expert in cooling and power infrastructures and are looking to power and cool 600W per slot in future systems." This compares with earlier systems, which handled less than 400W per slot.

Coping with 600W per slot requires a chassis that can scale, Wynia continued. "We're putting together configurations and putting them through NEBS testing. This is a big advantage for our customers. Because we've been certified by Verizon to do NEBS testing, customers can get product to market more quickly."

Artesyn's latest ATCA product is the Centellis 8000. The system is 18U high and designed for standard 19in rack mounting. It features a 40Gbit Ethernet dual star fabric interface and 14 blade slots. Two of these slots are switching slots, which can accommodate Artesyn's ATCA-F140 system management and switching blade.

With power and cooling for up to 600W per blade, Centellis 8000 systems can accommodate what the company says is a 'full payload' of high performance ATCA blades and offers a 'future proof' platform for higher powered processors.

"As we integrate blades with higher performance processors, more memory and throughput, hardware accelerators and increased I/O bandwidth, thermal performance becomes a critical factor. The Centellis 8000 series is the first to accommodate up to 600W per slot."

Despite continued demand for ATCA, there are potential storm clouds on the horizon. "Demand will slow because of the move to software defined networking and network function virtualisation," Wynia conceded. "While you can run any number of virtualised applications on generic servers, they tend to be server farms, rather than a bunch of boxes dedicated to particular applications. You might be able to use generic servers, but not efficiently."

Where Wynia sees demand for ATCA remaining strong is in applications that require performance acceleration. "There will always be opportunities to optimise hardware platforms to improve capacity, power efficiency and the cost of acquisition and ownership," he said. "This application acceleration may take several forms, including specialised ATCA blades or blades using general purpose processors optimised for specific applications."

Alongside more powerful processors, ATCA is likely to see higher data throughput. "A logical next step would be the evolution of the current 40G Ethernet fabric to 100G," Wynia concluded, "and an update of the standard will happen by 2016."

Blade features dual Intel processors
The Kontron AT8070 is a 40G ATCA processor blade featuring dual Intel Xeon processors.

Designed around the Xeon E5-2600 processor, which can offer up to 10 cores, the board supports 40 lanes of PCIe per processor. Each processor has four memory channels running at 1600MHz and the board consumes less than 315W without a rear transition module.

According to Kontron, the AT8070 is suited to cost constrained fixed broadband and wireless network applications which need to handle high levels of data.

Graham Pitcher

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