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ATCA Attacks the Data Center

Craig Matsumoto
4/28/2009

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The AdvancedTCA (ATCA) standards are being expanded to tailor to enterprise and data-center requirements, a move that pits the technology more directly against the proprietary platforms of HP Inc. (NYSE: HPQ) and IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM).

The PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group (PICMG) , which oversees ATCA and similar standards, formally announced the effort today at the Light Reading ATCA and Communcations Ecosystems Conference. PICMG sent out a notice yesterday to recruit members to help develop the standard.

The concept is loosely being called ATCA extensions, and the charter is to move ATCA into environments other than the telco central office. (See PICMG Expands ATCA.)

Representatives are reluctant to say they're striking against the IBM BladeCenter and HP's BladeSystem c-Class platforms, but those are two clear competitive targets, especially considering the respective companies eschewed ATCA in favor of their own technologies. (See HP Ditches ATCA.)

ATCA wasn't conceived with the data center in mind, which on the surface wouldn't put it in competition with BladeCenter or BladeSystem. But those platforms, BladeCenter in particular, have been reaching past the data center into the telecom world. (See IBM Tempts Telcos, Secures BladeCenter.)

"At the ATCA Summit last October, IBM had people interrupting presentations and talking to the press," Joe Pavlat, PICMG's chairman, tells Light Reading. "We're not just on their radar. We're on their threat radar." (IBM couldn't immediately be reached for comment.)

The extension standard would be less stringent than the original ATCA, and that could lend a hand in vendors' marketing efforts against IBM and HP.

For example, ATCA chassis have to be able to operate in rooms that are 55° C. (131° F), which puts limits on the number of processors or blades that can be squeezed into a box. Enterprise gear only has to work at about 40° C (104° F.), "which is easy for those of you who have been doing NEBS equipment," says says Kevin Bross, modular systems architect with longtime ATCA backer Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC).

Another reason to extend ATCA's reach is the cross-pollination between telco and enterprise products, something that's been going on for years. "You've got people in the CO [central office] space trying to sell into the enterprise space and vice versa, " Pavlat says. "And there's an increasing subset of enterprise customers that demand the kind of reliability ATCA is supposed to provide."

Some applications, such as VoIP and video on demand, have instantiations in both central offices and data centers. It would be nice to provide one set of hardware and middleware to handle both cases, Bross says. (One key facet of the ATCA extension project would be backward compatibility; all the ATCA blades being built now would be usable in the future enterprise/data center chassis.)

So, what new ideas could systems designers implement with extended ATCA specs? One option that opens up is the ability to create a card that's double the normal height. That creates the room for a hard disk on a card, making it possible to build an ATCA server that's one rack unit tall, Bross notes. Or, it could create increased airflow, letting vendors pack more memory modules onto a blade.

Yes, such cards take up two slots in a chassis. But designers can get that capacity back by adding slots to the back of the box, a two-sided design that isn't possible in telecom. The box could use one backplane or accommodate two separate backplanes, Bross says. That kind of design is what PICMG is hoping to explore in crafting ATCA Extensions standards.

— Craig Matsumoto, West Coast Editor, Light Reading

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