The Future of AdvancedTCA

By Jeff Munch, ADLINK Technology Inc.

The Advanced Telecom Computing Architecture (ATCA) specification was ratified by PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group (PICMG) in December 2002. At that time, ATCA promised to revolutionize the telecom infrastructure by providing high-performance, cost-effective, standards-based platforms that could be provided by multiple vendors. The goal of ATCA was to eliminate proprietary platforms and reduce development time and costs. Has ATCA delivered on its promise? What does the future hold for ATCA?

ATCA was part of the Modular Compute Platform (MCP) concept. The MCP defined the layers of hardware and software in typical telecommunications platforms and most importantly, the interface between layers. These layers were called Building Blocks. By modularizing and standardizing the platform, multiple vendors are able to provide compatible Building Blocks for a given layer. ATCA Building Blocks reside in the Blade and ATCA Chassis/Switch layers. The Blade can be a Network Processor, x86 processor, or general purpose processor based. The Blade, Switch and Chassis are the basic components of an ATCA Platform. In ATCA Platforms, the Switch takes on a very important role because all Blade-to-Blade communications pass through the Switch.

The ATCA specification provides a significant amount of flexibility. Blades can use multiple Fabric Interfaces including PICMG 3.1 Ethernet and Fibre Channel, PICMG 3.2 InfiniBand, PICMG 3.3 StarFabric, and 3.4 PCI Express. Within each of the Fabric Interfaces, multiple options are allowed. Blades also work with a variety of topology used by the Fabric Interface such as none, dual-star, dual dual-star, and full-mesh. The same levels of options are also available for Switch boards. This can make integration of an ATCA platform a challenge. It requires that the integrator understand the many options and expected compatibility.

All this flexibility combines into a challenge for ATCA platform users because end-users must understand all the flexibility inherent in ATCA and then select compatible products. This is not where users of ATCA add value but rather detract from it. The burden of understanding and configuring ATCA systems should lie with manufacturers and integrators, not the users. After all, board and chassis vendors are best suited for understanding and solving compatibility issues. As vendors of ATCA products move toward integration, we can see the inception of a new concept. 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 on off-the-shelf Build Blocks. From a user’s standpoint, the platform is ready for application-specific software at the time of purchase. This eliminates the worry about Blade/Backplane/Switch compatibility. And there is only one vendor to handle support calls.

One of the major opportunities in the future will be the integration of ATCA Building Blocks into Application Enabled Platforms. ATCA is well on its way to fulfilling its promise. Deployment of ATCA in telecommunications applications is happening now and announcements of the penetration of ATCA into the data center are now occurring. It is expected that military applications might also benefit from ATCA. We see technology improvements that will result in a 10x increase in the data throughput of the Fabric Interface. The evolution of ATCA will keep it instep with the market requirements. With all the technology it is important that users of ATCA focus on their value add and leaving ATCA platform integration to companies that specialize in the manufacturing, customizing, and integrating of ATCA platforms. The ability to stay focused will be a key success factor for companies of the not-too-distant future.

Jeff Munch is the Chief Technology Officer at ADLINK Technology Inc. as well as a Chair of the AdvancedTCA subcommittee He has more than twenty years experience in hardware design, software development, and engineering resource management. ADLINK is an Associate Member of the Intel® Communications Alliance.

Contact Information

ADLINK Technology Inc.
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