With faster Intel® Architecture (IA) processors that integrate four to six cores such as members of the Intel® Xeon™ 5500 and 5600 series, telecom equipment manufacturers have more flexibility than ever in developing powerful application servers using commercial-of-the-shelf (COTS) hardware and software. Such servers provide the equipment manufacturers with a tremendous time-to-market advantage and with a product that they can sell into many different applications due to open and interoperable software platforms. Moreover, the servers allow the network service providers to easily add support for new applications ranging from multimedia streaming to transaction processing in a manner that can scale over time as traffic demands continues to escalate. Using the standard COTS platform also allows the service provider to simplify their supply chain by stocking a single server platform that can be deployed into multiple applications.
There are several key technology elements that are intertwined in the concept of COTS carrier-grade servers including ATCA (Advanced Telecommunications Computing Architecture), the IA processors, Intel® Virtualization Technology (Intel® VT), Intel® QuickPath Interconnect (QPI) that can accelerate packet processing, readily-available carrier-grade software platforms, and multiple manufactures of modular server products. Together the elements result in powerful servers that can host software from many vendors and that ultimately lower service provider cost of ownership via code re-use, supply-chain advantages, and synergies with the IT server space that yields the IA processors. Let's discuss these elements individually.
ATCA is an open standard that was conceived specifically for telecom space. Systems based on ATCA can achieve five nines reliability – less than five minutes of unscheduled downtime per year. While ATCA products cost more than products based on other modular computing standards, the cost is justified by the application. Moreover, ATCA as an open standard has enabled competition among many suppliers and delivers much lower-cost systems that a closed, proprietary architecture can deliver.
If you would like to dig deeper into the ATCA topic, there is quite a lot of good content on the web site. An article from late 2009 details the ATCA characteristics that enable high-availability systems. ATCA is also proving popular in military & aerospace applications where high-reliability is a requisite. There is an excellent article by my colleague Kenton Williston comparing ATCA with other standards such as VPX and MicroTCA for military & aerospace applications. Back in the communications area, ATCA seems to be the prime choice for service providers in the wireless space where the bulk of the growth in the communications segment is happening, as I covered in a recent article on 40-Gbps network equipment.
Of course a carrier-grade hardware platform is only half of the story. Telecom service providers have to have equal reliability on the software side to ensure reliable networks and services. Wind River1 is one software vendor that has focused on the opportunity in the telecom segment. The company offers what it calls carrier-grade versions of Linux and its real-time VxWorks operating systems. Wind River's Carrier Grade Linux 4.0 product complies with the Carrier Grade Linux Specification developed by the Linux Foundation.
Wind River has published a whitepaper entitled "Carrier grade open platforms are the key to success for next-generation network elements." You have to register to download the PDF, but the paper includes good background on the concept of next-generation networks, lays a foundation for a platform approach, and describes the Wind River solution.
The above figure summarizes the elements of the open platform. As you can see, the operating system is a small part of the overall platform. The carrier grade elements depicted on the right of the figure are applied across all of the layers of the platform that are stacked on the left side of the figure. My colleague Henry Davis wrote a dedicated article on the topic of multi-core processors and next-generation networks that covers this area in more detail.
The Wind River carrier-grade operating systems include support for a number of features that are critical in enabling network applications on IA processors with optimal performance. For example, the operating systems support both traditional symmetrical multiprocessing (SMP) and asymmetric multiprocessing. In the SMP case, tasks are spread across cores in a processor scheduled by the operating system. In AMP, cores can be dedicated to specific tasks allowing more resources to be dedicated to real-time packet or stream processing. I covered a Wind River evaluation of packet processing performance in an earlier article in which AMT delivered a significant performance advantage. The implementation relies on Intel VT technology to partition the real-time tasks.
Wind River also offers a Network Packet Acceleration stack for use with its standard and carrier-grade operating systems that utilizes AMP. The link I provided above addresses the acceleration product and my colleague Warren Webb covered it recently as well in an article on breaking network performance barriers.
The Wind River operating systems and the Network Acceleration Platform are compatible with ATCA products from a number of vendors including Advantech2, RadiSys3 (Continuous Computing), Emerson Network Power Embedded Computing4, and Kontron5.
Kontron, for example, offers the AT8050 ATCA server blade with a choice of a 6-core Xeon 5600 processor or a 4-core 5500 processor. In either case the blade can host as much as 48 Gbytes of memory, although in high-reliability applications system designers may turn to registered ECC memory and the blade can integrate only 24 Gbytes of the ECC memory. There is also an Advanced Mezzanine Card (AMC) slot that among other potential uses could add an additional IA processor.
Advantech also offers ATCA blades based on the Xeon 5500 or 5600 series, and in fact the MIC-5322 pictured above integrates dual processors. In the case of the 5600 version, the blade includes 12 cores that can process 24 execution threads. The blade also features the Intel® 82599 Gbit Ethernet controller and the Intel® 5520 server-class chipset.
The readily-available ATCA hardware and software such as Wind River's carrier class products allow a telecom equipment maker to easily and quickly bring high-availability servers to market. Moreover the systems allow interoperable support for software from Wind River and third parties.
Do you have experience integrating ATCA-based technology into high-availability systems? Other followers of the Intel® Embedded Community would welcome the chance to benefit from your experience via comments. Have you used carrier-grade software in a system? What were the roadblocks you faced and tell us about the benefits that you achieved in the project.
To view other community content focused on interoperability, see "Interoperability – Top Picks."
Roving Reporter (Intel Contractor)
Intel® Embedded Alliance
1 Wind River is an Associate member of the Intel® Embedded Alliance
2 Advantech is a Premier member of the Alliance
3 Radisys is a Premier member of the Alliance
4 Emerson Network Power Embedded Computing is a Premier member of the Alliance
5 Kontron is a Premier member of the Alliance