Integrating ATCA Hardware with HA Middleware

Solving the Challenges of Integrating the Complex Building Blocks

By Sven Freudenfeld, Kontron

Fig. 1: A detailed view of COTS or proprietary hardware

Solving the Challenges of Integrating the Complex Building Blocks for Network Service Applications

Telecommunications applications such as IP-TV, social networking and 4G presence-enabled services are setting the foundation for a broad spectrum of content delivery platforms. Telecommunication service providers (TEPs) and the telecommunications (TEMs) that support them are now focusing on new delivery platforms for converged network applications. Competition is intensifying as TEMs must keep up with these time-to-market demands, quality of experience (QOE) expectations and increasing complexity of the network, while focusing on differentiating their application. The demand to deliver content and provide services is slated to grow very rapidly, placing heavy demands on the communications infrastructure, while requiring significant scalability along with uninterrupted service availability.

IPTV is an area that shows huge promise in delivering a comprehensive communication experience that can include everything from entertainment, corporate information dissemination, complex conferencing, and public information access. IPTV combines all the video, voice and data exchange services from computer and wireless devices with all the television programming and Video on Demand (VoD) services.

According to a new bi-annual IPTV Forecast from Multimedia Research Group (MRG) released in November 2007, growth for IPTV is projected from 13.5 million in 2007 to 72.6 million in 2011, roughly a 40% compounded annual growth rate. In North America, Verizon and AT&T are growing considerably faster than previously forecasted, and MRG expects Verizon to be the world’s largest IPTV service provider in 2011.

However, this market progression is not without its challenges. MRG believes that the continued growth of the global IPTV industry, specifically in Europe, Asia and North America, hinges upon the often misunderstood “middleware” component that glues together the many working parts of the IPTV end-to-end system. Without a flexible middleware solution that can easily and predictably increase the number of subscribers and the breadth of services, IPTV operators will not be able to sustain long-term growth or stability.

Developers need proven, off-the-shelf customizable solutions that will allow them to concentrate on their application-specific core competencies and focus on delivering differentiating features and greater application value and performance. Partnering with a platform integration vendor to ensure the validity and reliability of system is just as important to overall success.

COTS Approach

Building a distributed, highly available and reliable system to deliver these services is a complex and often daunting task, particularly since back-end design is increasing in its complexity. Designing the entire system in house is no longer a realistic use of resources nor is it a cost-effective option. Instead, developers are looking to a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) approach that is driven by standards in order to accelerate and take some of the risk out of the development cycle and ultimately meet delivery schedules.

By using COTS building blocks from the hardware computing platform up to the operating system (OS), High Availability (HA)- middleware and certain protocol components, NEPs and TEMs are given the fundamental elements to create a carrier-grade platform. The benefits of a carrier-based platform with a true open architecture foundation are realized in the form of highly differentiated products that are scalable, freeing up valuable engineering resources then could be used to design applications that add value to and reduce the time to market of more innovative services.

Integrating all of the complex building blocks together is essential and can provide a number of unique technical challenges. As a result, the desire for straightforward integration management that has been validated and tested is rapidly becoming a necessity. The SCOPE Alliance, has defined a reference architecture for a generic Carrier Grade Base Platform (CGBP). This architecture, which includes hardware, operating system, operations and maintenance functions and tools, also specifies middleware as a fundamental component for service availability. As CGBP building blocks become commoditized, the industry cooperates in many initiatives to specify and implement an open architecture. SCOPE also creates profiles for The Service Availability Forum (SA Forum), the main organization active in the middleware standardization effort. The SCOPE Alliance has also published the ATCA profile, which provides guidance for a common platform to create carrier Grade Platforms that fulfill the needs of NEPs and their customers, the service providers.

In September 2007, the SCOPE Alliance released the Middleware Profile v2.0. This updated profile, along with previously published Reference Architecture, and profiles (Middleware v1.0, ATCA, AMC, and Operating System) provides the Carrier Grade Base Platforms/COTS ecosystem (consumers & suppliers, specifications setting bodies, and the Open Source community) with comprehensive guidance regarding the creation of interoperable Carrier Grade Base Platforms for NEPs and Systems Integrators.

The AdvancedTCA Building Block

The advent of the AdvancedTCA, the first standardized hardware platform to meet carrier-class requirements, provides the hardware building blocks and flexibility to integrate complex high-performance systems from off-the-shelf components. Processing capabilities and available bandwidth increase with multi-core processors while maintaining a smaller footprint and lower power performance than were achievable in past rackmount configurations. Manufacturers who take advantage of the latest multi-core processors in these COTS form factors will be able to build faster, more scalable systems without upgrading the framework or increasing floor space. Combining ATCA blades with Advanced Mezzanine processor Cards on a carrier grade, standard-based platform allows network management to take place entirely on one ATCA slot on the ATCA switch blade, alleviating the bandwidth from the fabric and maximizing the footprint of the overall system. Delivering reliable high-performance solutions that scale with the demands of the market is quite promising with such advancements.

More Complex Building Blocks for Next- Generation Network Systems

Selecting the appropriate hardware to support a given set of communications protocols and applications is just the beginning of the engineering workload associated with launching a new carrier-class platform. Along with the robust, highly intelligent, high availability and reliable hardware components provided by AdvancedTCA also comes a degree of complexity in the details of virtually every facet of the system. Besides the standards-based COTS system management building blocks, there are a number of other elements which must all work together seamlessly.

System design engineers must also integrate the associated OS and in some instances the Board Support Package (BSP) with the associated supporting drivers for the components on the board or system and develop middleware to integrate the hardware with the application reliably. The management capabilities for all the hardware, fabrics, software, and system components are quite sophisticated and experts knowledgeable in the complex standards are required in order to pull all the building blocks together into a cohesive system. Robust operating systems are necessary to maintain dependable systems in high availability environments, allowing for continued service with an interface to the user base that allows the specifics of the hardware to remain transparent.

The Daunting Task of Integration

While the benefits of using AdvancedTCA standard are many, it still requires a certain level of an integration effort that can take from six to 12 months to make sure all the building blocks work seamlessly together. In addition, integrating the hardware platform can require a great deal of support in the form of program management, functional experts, quality assurance, tools and deployment support all of which adds up to a tremendous amount of precious personnel, time and money resources.

To begin with, integration efforts are on different levels starting from interoperability on the hardware level when using multiple sources for the system components. There are also the considerations of thermal, mechanical, fabric connectivity and IPMI interoperability. This first integration task can become quite complex. Having all the tools to perform this task is already a significant investment not to mention the engineering time to perform that validation and integration. When integrating multi-sourced standard components, further challenges arise when it comes down to identifying which “vendor” is at fault when problems occur.

The next level of integration requires that the preferred OS is working and supported on the desired blades and might require an additional validation effort. The manageability within the system can take a major undertaking. Even by using standard-based components, the system management (middleware), HPI, and shelf management all need to be validated as a cohesive management unit. Even if the components are designed based on standards or a recipe, every vendor may have different method of implementing it. For a product to be successful, it needs to be a complete solution with hardware, middleware, OS, etc. Integrating all these elements is a year’s worth of intense work which can be a timeconsuming and costly task for a systems provider.

The following outlines an example of the cost associated with resources and lost revenue due to incremental time-to-market in a real-world network application developed in house.

From the initial procurement phase (which involves component selection, procurement and learning curve) to carrier-class integration and validation of the hardware platform, to deployment support (including debug and component upgrade), the incremental time to market can add up to over 700 days. The lost revenue due to this delay can add up to a loss of $1Million for every month not in the market, which totals to an astounding cost of nearly $24Million. Within this, the portion associated with just developing the custom middleware to meet the requirements can total up to more than $500,000. Whereas, the build and validate portion can add almost $250,000.

The Emergence of Middleware

Fig. 2: High Availability Middleware Overview

Given the difficult, detailed and time-consuming nature of pulling the pieces of the platform together, embedded system companies should not be discouraged away from developing AdvancedTCA-based carrier class systems. In fact, the rapid middleware ecosystem growth provides new opportunities for realizing fully integrated carrier grade base platforms (CGBP). The SA Forum provides guidance to TEM’s beginning to gain recognition for the portability, interoperability and increased innovation they enable. Standards-based middleware provides TEMs with off-the-shelf high availability software to complement its carrier-grade equipment. Frequently there is a lapse between the availability of the hardware and date which it is possible to deploy applications due to the schedule cost of the back-end software development. This gap can be being filled with middleware platforms that provide chassis management functions, inter-process communications, and services that are scalable from deeply embedded to large, complex systems.

Case in Point - IPTV

However, many experts feel that the single most important barrier to widespread adoption of IPTV hinges upon a superior quality of service (QoS) that delivers maximum quality of experience (QoE) to the end user. Yet major design, technology and business challenges threaten to derail performance.

In order to achieve superior QoE and QoS, IPTV applications must meet the following specifications:

    • High Network Processing Capability – to relieve I/O bottlenecks and manage concurrent data streams efficiently for IPTV.

    • Proven Standardized Platforms – to leverage advanced technology, while remaining focused on core competencies.

    • Manageability – The ability to manage the network, perform upgrades, service existing equipment and avoid IPTV downtime is more important than ever. With increasing subscriber demands, service providers demand network visibility and management at the blade, module and system levels.

    • Scalability – To prepare and build a system for change, it is important for service providers to implement technology that is flexible, scalable and easy to upgrade. The need to support emerging technology and provide increased performance, places greater emphasis on hardware adaptability in network deployments.

    • High Reliability and Availability – In an “always on” environment, IPTV systems must be extremely available and reliable. Network element and application failure negatively impact the QoE. With on-demand content, it is essential that a high availability framework be implemented that supports controlled and managed failover.

    • Interactivity – With the emerging ability to support High Definition resolutions on decoders, and Systemon- Chip integrated decoders, introduction of full interactive video services based on IPTV and IP settop- box models that go beyond Video on Demand and Electronic Program Guide are becoming a reality. Live interaction between people becomes a springboard for an entirely new paradigm of communication.

    • Fast Time to Market – Widespread adoption of IPTV requires network equipment manufacturers to adopt a standards driven, commercial COTS approach to accelerate development cycles and continue to meet demands.

In order to solve the business and technical challenges, an IPTV initiative called the IPTV Experience was formed to build an infrastructure resource. Comprised of leading companies Enea, Intel, Kontron, and RADVISION, this broad-based industry initiative that takes full advantage of the latest proven processor technology, commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware, middleware, and video networking.

The global effort brings together leading companies from the software, hardware and semiconductor industries, each with a specific solution to one or several of the major roadblocks impeding the mass adoption of IPTV. As an alliance, member companies bring a systemic view with an emphasis on off-the-shelf, rapidly deployable solutions to accelerate the roll out of this new medium.

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Sven Freudenfeld is responsible for North American Business Development for the Kontron AG line of AdvancedTCA, AdvancedMC, MicroTCA, and Pre- Integrated OM Solutions. Sven possesses more than 15 years of experience with voice, data, and wireless communications, having worked extensively with Nortel Networks in Systems Engineering, Sanmina-SCI in Test Engineering, and Deutsche Telekom in Network engineering. Sven holds an electrical engineering degree from Germany, and is also VP of The Communications Platforms Trade Association (CP-TA) and is the Chair of the CP-TA marketing workgroup focusing on the interoperability of COTS standard building blocks.


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