MicroTCA Spans Applications
High Bandwidth and Small Form Factor MicroTCA for Flexible Embedded Design
Modular AdvancedMC modules are instrumental to the success of MicroTCA in multiple markets including telecom, networking, medical and other key embedded markets.
SVEN FREUDENFELD AND DAVID PURSLEY, KONTRON
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Embedded systems must meet the growing demand for ruggedness, flexibility, mobility and high-end processing, and these attributes should be designed into standards-based solutions that can be developed and implemented quickly and within budget. Beyond application-specific requirements, many embedded system designs may also require features that address low-power, size and scalability challenges. MicroTCA, comprised of modular COTS components such as Advanced Mezzanine Cards (AdvancedMCs), offers some significant design advantages to solve these challenges. AdvancedMCs are the building blocks that make MicroTCA an ideal platform for a broad range of high-availability, high-bandwidth embedded designs.
Telecom and medical are two market examples that have a diverse set of application requirements, with each demanding a certain level of design flexibility. MicroTCA possesses the practical and cost-effective versatility to meet these demands.
Initially designed as a hot-swappable component within AdvancedTCA (ATCA) platforms, AdvancedMC modules brought a modular, open-standard approach at the mezzanine level for telecommunication equipment manufacturers. AdvancedMCs are used to add specific features or functions to a particular application. Typically integrated in tandem with an ATCA carrier board or within AdvancedMC slots in a CPU or switch blade, AdvancedMCs allow for hot-swap and redundant system management within an ATCA system, or provide additional processing functions on any single ATCA node or switch blade.
Another common use for AdvancedMCs is in redundant and non-redundant MicroTCA platforms. Here the form factor can vary between single or double-wide AdvancedMCs and MicroTCA platforms, and provides full-scale PCI Express, GbE, 10GbE or Serial Rapid I/O infrastructure to the system being implemented. A growing number of applications are also using AdvancedMCs with low-cost backplanes and a reduced-functionality infrastructure. This retains the standard AdvancedMC implementation but reduces implementation costs, allowing OEMs to only pay for what they really need.
AdvancedMCs have evolved from single or double-wide modules, and based on the PICMG specification, MicroTCA can scale from four non-redundant to up to 12 AdvancedMC modules with redundancy in a MicroTCA backplane. This delivers extensive flexibility in a smaller footprint—a critical feature for MicroTCA-based designs in demanding applications such as telecom or medical imaging. Low-cost AdvancedMC system implementations (designed with direct interconnectivity between two to four AdvancedMC modules via the backplane) also deliver design flexibility in cost and functionality.
Different usage models for AdvancedMC modules have further broadened their use and economies of scale for embedded systems. For example, TEMs can free up valuable ATCA slots by combining general-purpose processing with packet processing functions through the use of AdvancedMC slots with PCI Express, GbE and even 10GbE on a single ATCA blade. This scalability and flexibility have become essential in helping manufacturers manage system upgrades while simultaneously protecting their initial ATCA platform investments.
Since AdvancedMCs could be used for a wider range of system-level functions, it became apparent that their use could extend well beyond ATCA-based telecommunication applications and into other high-performance computing environments such as medical, industrial and even transportation applications.
AdvancedMCs plug directly into the MicroTCA backplane—fundamentally turning the mezzanine itself into a blade, which enables designers to take full advantage of a flexible platform to readily create a small yet highly powerful and scalable system. Consequently, AdvancedMCs can be used as a main controller, data server, traffic processor, image or signal processing engine, security appliance, or network processor—giving designers a cost-effective solution to accelerate to market a finished system that can feature multiple applications on the same platform.
New Telecom Application Enablers
Intelligent networks are being deployed in enterprise, datacenter, broadband and access networks—a new generation of systems that must effectively handle highly distributed, service-related or legacy architecture applications. As a result, AdvancedMC modules have become an attractive design alternative, meeting needs for deep packet inspection processing (vital to monitor and modify network activities), TCP/IP packet processing and load balancing, content aware applications, security processing, compression/de-compression and other new and evolving communications services. By providing information about typical activities such as traffic profiles, users, sources or destination, carriers and wireless providers can introduce new tiered services, as well as quality of service (QoS) and enhanced network efficiencies that enable smoother operations and new revenue opportunities.
Multicore AdvancedMCs are integral to handling this range of packet and security processing functions including forwarding, load balancing, traffic management and IPsec in both ATCA- or MicroTCA-based environments. AdvancedMCs were typically released as Gigabit Ethernet modules, but now more multicore packet processor modules support 10GbE for higher bandwidth applications.
This has spurred new growth opportunities for MicroTCA platforms to be designed for media servers, signaling gateways, CMTS-cores, radio network controllers, and more recently, new LTE base station solutions that deliver next-generation broadband wireless technology for wide area networks. Sheer cost, power and size efficiencies make MicroTCA ideal to mass deploy, for example, radio access eNodeB systems into the field. The platform approach can include configurations of I/O, general-purpose processor and DSP (Digital Signal Processor) AMC modules (Figure 1).
A series of AdvancedMC GbE/10GbE Intelligent IO modules is based on the next-generation Cavium OCTEON multi-core packet processor. The AM42xx AMC modules are optimized for layer 4 to 7 data and security processing, targeting access and service providers with 3G/4G BTS, RNC, xGSN and Media Gateways.
AdvancedMCs as the Foundation
Selecting the right AdvancedMC for a system design depends entirely on the features and functions required for the system. Designers have the choice to select an AdvancedMC based on processing performance, communications bandwidth, storage or specific I/O options. For example, processor AdvancedMCs are employed to host microprocessors and network processors. Storage AdvancedMCs are used to host flash memory cards or perhaps a solid-state drive if the design requires critical data storage and support for extended temperature ranges.
Since AdvancedMC modules offer a flexible combination of size, performance options and features, designers can create MicroTCA systems with as few as one or two AdvancedMC modules, or as many as the 12 allowed by the MicroTCA specification. This makes MicroTCA cost-effective and extremely flexible, with each slot populated with a different type of AdvancedMC module. For example, a 1U six-slot design could feature a mixed and redundant configuration of processor, storage and packet processor modules to be used for central office SIP Server, SSL offload, content-aware processing and QoS over Ethernet applications.
When looking at 12-slot MicroTCA platforms, the resulting design possibilities can make it popular for any number of compute-intensive applications such as medical imaging and screening, and diagnostics and therapy. As a configuration of such a high number of multicore AdvancedMC processor modules that are tightly coupled over high-speed communication links (i.e., over the backplane), this cube form factor is well suited for a range of access and edge network elements for voice, data and video networks. Two of these MicroTCA cubes could even be mounted together in a 19” frame, thus providing space for 24 AdvancedMCs in a 5U 19-inch form factor, achieving an unparalleled density of computing in terms of AdvancedMC space per total chassis volume (Figure 2).
The Kontron OM6120 brings significant cost improvements compared to conventional MicroTCA platforms. Cost optimization includes Power Management and Fan Control on the backplane, and pluggable Power Supply Units instead of MicroTCA Power Modules. By accommodating a high number of multi-core AdvancedMC modules and allowing a tight coupling of processors over high-speed communication links (over the backplane), the system is also well suited for image processing applications in single-channel or dual-channel architectures.
MicroTCA and AMCs in Medical Applications
Many medical applications require high bandwidth and overall processing power, and are an ideal environment for the power and flexibility of a MicroTCA-based platform. Image processing—with emphasis on the processing—is growing as a valuable medical diagnostic tool in the analysis of images and related patient information. Pattern recognition, rendering of organs, and volumetric analysis of a range of image types not only demand heavy processing power themselves, but are frequently tied back to specific patient information in medical databases.
Familiar medical procedures such as X-rays have been using digital technologies for some time now—and the processing demands are only increasing. CAT Scans, for example, provide three-dimensional images based on X-rays, ultrasound or nuclear medicine functions such as Positron Emission Tomography (PET) or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Coming soon are live images, delivered and used in real-time therapy or diagnostic applications. Consider mass screening for skin cancer by using spectroscopy in combination with image processing.
Advancements in multicore processing, represented by the latest Intel processors and chipsets, have in turn led to the development of new imaging applications that might not have been previously possible due to limited platform bandwidth. Today’s image processing requires many cores, frequently on multiple blades, either tightly coupled over high-speed buses like Serial Rapid I/O or loosely coupled over network protocols such as 10GbE or GbE. Image rendering further demands high-performance graphics boards, which interconnect over high-speed PCI Express lanes.
Designers have plenty of options, and high-level imaging can be achieved by stacks of servers or industry standard server blades. However, compared to isolated servers, systems based on server blades include the benefit of higher computing density and the tight coupling of processors over the backplane. In MicroTCA platforms that incorporate multicore AdvancedMCs, the Ethernet network infrastructure is built right into the system. With the ability to utilize up to 12 AdvancedMCs, medical systems can also support effective system management, power management, Ethernet switching and other transport systems, in addition to the processing performance required for compute-intensive imaging applications (Figure 3).
The port mapping and use of clocks show how a MicroTCA backplane can be used to enable the synchronization of processor-based AdvancedMC modules to an internal or external clock for applications such as real-time processing or complex robotic motion-control.
Modular, Powerful and Effective
Ultimately, AdvancedMCs provide diverse applications across a range of communications, networking and medical implementations. Integrated with a MicroTCA 2U platform, AdvancedMC modules can be configured, along with other processor and storage AdvancedMC modules, for powerful integrated security services. When that MicroTCA system builds to 3U or perhaps 4U—and every blade has incorporated a multicore processor—the resulting systems could be operating today with as many as 24 cores. Even with that extremely high level of processing power, such a system would still maintain a very small footprint, an achievement that many designers consider MicroTCA’s most powerful benefit.
AdvancedMC modules have demonstrated their versatility and flexibility as COTS building blocks for AdvancedTCA- and MicroTCA-based systems, solidifying their role as a cost-effective solution to manage a variety of next-generation networking functions. Further, AdvancedMCs have translated that ability to handle high-performance, high-availability processing across a variety of embedded markets including telecom, networking and medical implementations.
As a wide range of embedded systems and markets continue to drive technology toward open, standards-based multicore computing platforms, AdvancedMCs will continue to deliver ongoing cost and design advantages in a high-bandwidth, high-performance small form factor.