AdvancedTCA Unleashes Possibilities beyond Telecomm

The AdvancedTCA (ATCA) specification was released in late 2002 with the involvement
of more than 100 members of PICMG. Originally targeted for the demanding needs
of the telecommunications market, ATCA offers a level of performance and throughput
previously unavailable in any standardized blade form-factor. The dramatic adoption
rate of ATCA within the telecommunications industry and the broad number of
suppliers planning or offering ATCA products provide a rich ecosystem of products.
These factors are combining to provide an opportunity for developers of security
and embedded applications to gain unprecedented performance and scalability
in their applications by adopting ATCA boards and systems.

A single chassis can support up to 16 ATCA blades, and each blade has 140 square
inches (902 square centimeters) of PCB space. There is enough room to fit high-performance
processors, memory, and other components on the blade. Even more important, the
1.2-inch (30.48 mm) blade pitch provides ample space between blades for heat sinks
and socketed processors to be adequately cooled with conventional forced air-cooling
technology.

The scalability of ATCA is also apparent in its interconnect bandwidth. ATCA blades
support lower interconnect speeds such as dual 10/100/1000BASE-T and scale all
the way up to interconnect technologies of 10 Gbits/s (each direction) from each
blade—all without having to change backplanes or connectors. Recent technology
demonstrations have shown that ATCA backplanes can scale to more than 10 Tbits/s
total bandwidth per backplane.

The performance capacity and throughput scalability of ATCA, combined with its
ruggedness as the platform for telecom applications, the serviceability improvements
offered by blade-based systems, and the breadth of products available from the
industry, all point to an excellent opportunity for developers to finally be able
to leverage commercial off-the-shelf products for their security systems and embedded
applications.

Security Applications

In response to heightened security fears over the last couple years, researchers
and developers have created innovative new methods to improve security at airports,
courthouses, government buildings and other high-security environments. Example
innovations include:

• Low-energy scanning techniques at checkpoints to scan through clothing,
looking for hard plastics and metallic objects that may be used as weapons.

• Puffs of air to dislodge surface particles as people walk through checkpoints.
Residue from these surface particles is then analyzed to see if the subject has
been in contact with suspicious chemicals.

• Fingerprint, eye scan, voice recognition and other biometric identification
technologies, are increasingly being used to verify the identity of people, particularly
at international borders.

These methods often involve complex data analysis, combined with access to
both local and centralized databases. In some cases, the speed with which the
system can process the data and indicate a potential security threat is a limiting
factor as to whether the system can be deployed in the field.

These systems often need integration between general-purpose processors, network
processors, and/or digital signal processing (DSP) elements to work efficiently.
The open architecture of ATCA allows specialized blades to be developed for
certain applications and easily married with commercial off-the-shelf hardware
for the more common elements of the system.

In addition, such systems need to be more rugged than regular PCs. Standard
computers that work well in low-temperature, dust-free environments may run
into problems when exposed to higher temperatures or in real-world environments
where conditions may not be as controlled. Products designed to meet the rigorous
demands of telecommunications carriers will more easily handle these adverse
environments. For example, a typical ATCA chassis includes air filters to protect
against dust-borne circuit board contamination and can handle higher temperatures
than typical computer designs.

A well-designed system is not only rugged but can also identify and survive
component level failures. This involves power system design, hardware management
subsystems, failover software, redundant interconnects and policies for deploying
redundant equipment. ATCA provides a robust, resilient power architecture, a
comprehensive and interoperable management mechanism and redundant interconnects.
Many ATCA chassis are also designed to provide sufficient cooling even in the
case of a single fan failure.

An often overlooked feature when designing an embedded or security system is
the service replacement scenario. When a failure occurs, do you need to call
in specially trained technicians for the hardware replacement, or could operators
with a little training be remotely directed to reliably replace the hardware?
Think of the personnel you saw the last time you went through an airport checkpoint,
would you want them replacing parts in a normal PC and reconnecting a mass of
cables in the right order? Could you count on them wearing ESD wrist straps
to prevent damage to components? Could you afford to shut down a security checkpoint
until specialized technicians arrive to replace parts? This is where ATCA products
shine.

One optional feature of ATCA is support for Rear Transition Modules (RTMs),
which are typically passive boards with all the cable connections on the back
side; these mate directly with the front boards. Because they are passive, the
chance of failure on RTMs should be very low. Moving most (or all) of the cables
to RTMs on the back side of the chassis allows service personnel to replace
the front board without having to reconnect a host of cables. This model reduces
the likelihood of error during servicing.

Another big advantage is the ruggedized packaging of ATCA blades. Most blades
have a rugged metal backing plate. This not only protects the blade from bending
and flexing. It also reduces the chance of people damaging the board if they
do not follow strict electrostatic protection procedures. An optional cover
on the primary side of the blade can further protect the blade from damage during
servicing.

By
utilizing the enhanced processing capability available in ATCA blades, developers
can integrate security database information with video information from security
cameras to provide enhanced security. As security credentials are registered
by a card reader, for example, an ATCA blade can use those credentials to look
up a photo of the proper owner and superimpose that photo on the surveillance
video, along with the person’s name and other critical data (Figure 1).

 

This allows security personnel who are monitoring the card reader to compare
the face of the person coming through the card reader to the photo on file.
If there is a noticeable difference, the security personnel can ask for further
identification. This side-by-side data is available for local security desks,
for remote security desks, and in the archived surveillance information in case
later review is required.

The architectural headroom provided by the ATCA platform provides intriguing
opportunities for future security enhancements. For example, adding facial recognition
software to this application could provide automated comparison between the
person requesting access and the data on file for that individual. The additional
processing performance, database capabilities and bandwidth needed to provide
this level of enhanced security are easily enabled with industry standard tools
and products on the ATCA platform.

Embedded Systems

The power and rugged durability of ATCA systems are assets for embedded systems
control as well. For example, small-scale video analysis has often been used
with pick-and-place equipment to check individual part placement. Now the increased
processing power offered by ATCA blades can allow video analysis of larger elements,
such as entire circuit boards in the electronics industry or the assembly of
doors in the automotive industry. Automated visual inspections can augment human
inspections of these parts to quickly identify suspect parts for further analysis
in visual or X-ray scans.

By integrating quality inspection with database information from prior products,
embedded monitoring systems can identify quality trends. For example, if a welder
or cutting tool is coming out of alignment, the monitoring system can identify
progressive quality degradation even while it is within acceptable parameters.
Once this trend is identified, the monitoring system can signal for human intervention
or even make adjustments to the tooling system automatically. The increased
computing power of general-purpose processors in multiple ATCA blades makes
it much simpler to deliver an integrated solution than the composite approach
that required tighter coordination between rugged equipment on the floor and
powerful systems in the back room. ATCA brings these two worlds together.

Since ATCA has the headroom to support powerful systems based on standard server
architectures, even maintenance and troubleshooting is easier. An embedded server
operating system can be used on one or more blades for system control, while
a desktop operating system can be used on another blade for certain reporting
and user interface applications.

For example, if the manufacturing system has a malfunction, a video display
built into the machinery and connected to the interface blade could provide
step-by-step troubleshooting instructions in concert with the data provided
by the system control blades. This could provide the freedom to develop interface
applications as easily as people develop programs for desktop and home PCs,
without the need to run the primary control system on that same blade or even
the same operating system.

The ability of ATCA to support standard applications allows developers and systems
integrators to leverage existing tools and utilities along with custom software
and hardware in order to expedite delivery of comprehensive, customized solutions.
Since minimally trained technicians can upgrade or replace the ruggedized hardware
as necessary, ATCA products are a good fit for embedded systems control.

Airborne Servers

Long-haul airplane routes are offering more and more technology. Telephone service
and shared movies are increasingly being augmented by Internet access and personal
video selections. As this trend continues, airlines will need to find open,
scalable solutions that will allow them to competitively serve their customers
within a business model that controls their expenses. ATCA is a good fit to
fill this need.

In the telecommunications and cable TV environments, ATCA systems are already
being targeted for video server applications. This combination of storage and
compute power can easily be adapted for use in airline video-on-demand systems.
Imagine a system with over 100 movies that can be retrieved at any time by any
customer, with full pause, rewind and fast-forward capabilities for each user.
In addition, thousands of songs can be made available for those just wanting
to listen to music or other audio programs.

Now extend this system to video games on demand. The same server blades that
can do media serving can alternately provide single-player or multi-player video
games. With a pool of blades to choose from, the applications can be dynamically
allocated between blades to meet demand (Figure 2).

Now add Internet serving to this. Airborne Internet services may require service
billing and many of the network security services outlined earlier. Of particular
importance is traffic shaping or bandwidth allocation. It is important that
available bandwidth be equitably distributed to those who have paid for the
service.

Many of these solutions can be developed on architectures other than ATCA.
However, the compute-intensive nature and ever-increasing throughput requirements
of these applications will make proprietary, discrete and less scalable solutions
undesirable to customers with long-term perspectives.

Intel
Santa Clara, CA.
(408) 765-8080.
[www.intel.com].