The new twist relates to efforts to standardize backplane switching so that vendors can buy in off-the-shelf subsystems rather than develop them themselves. An extension of one of the key proposed standards in this area, called Advanced Switching Interconnect (ASI) could make Ethernet backplanes a reality.
The subtly named ASI-Ethernet effort is just getting underway, says Rajeev Kumar, who represents Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) at the Advanced Switching Interconnect Special Interest Group (ASI-SIG) and serves as the group's president.
ASI will support other protocols as well, but Intel, for one, is putting special emphasis on the idea of an Ethernet backplane. "There's probably going to be room for two major [backplane] switching technologies: Ethernet and Advanced Switching," Kumar says.
ASI aims to standardize backplane switching in telecom equipment, putting emphasis on carrier requirements such as redundancy and high availability (see Backplane Standard Gains Allies). Industrywide standards would allow equipment vendors to "farm out" more of their systems design, making it possible for a merchant company to provide a generic backplane, for example. The concept goes hand in hand with the Advanced Telecom Computing Architecture (ATCA), which offers a standard systems outline for telecom (see AdvancedTCA and ATCA Needs Platform Thinking).
In general, SIG members are hopeful ASI products will hit the streets this year. "By the end of 2005, you'll see ATCA-based ASI switches," says Wade Appelman, vice president of marketing for chip firm StarGen Inc. (see ASI Approves 1.1 Spec, StarGen Unveils PCIe & ASI Devices, and Agilent Releases ASI Tester).
Ethernet is one of several protocol-specific ASI flavors likely to emerge in the coming years. Support for PCI-Express -- the progenitor of ASI -- came first, and others are likely to follow, Kumar says. To cover future, yet-undefined cases, the ASI 1.1 spec released this week includes a protocol interface mechanism named PI-2, which allows ASI to encapsulate arbitrary protocols.
Ideally, ASI would be able to combine multiple protocols and send them across a single fabric. The advantage to this would be the availability of a "generic" fabric that could provide key features unavailable in some protocols. For example, an ASI fabric could add the quality of service (QOS) and traffic engineering lacking in Ethernet, Kumar says.
Appelman says he's seen Ethernet enthusiasm primarily in the blade-server market, but telecom is showing some interest, too. "There are some large TEMs [telecom equipment manufacturers] saying that by encapsulating Ethernet in the backplane, they can protect their linecard investments," he says.
Even Intel concedes that an Ethernet backplane isn't for everybody, however. One glaring limitation is that the speed grades jump from 1 Gbit/s to 10 Gbit/s, making multigigabit links an awkward fit for the backplane. "You would have to go to multiple lines of Gigabit [Ethernet], and that leads to added complexity," Kumar says. For those cases, Intel will be recommending ASI.
Of course, Ethernet is not the only backplane option in the works. Challengers in the backplane world include InfiniBand and RapidIO, a chip-to-chip interconnect that's winding its way into the telecom backplane world via the RapidFabric extensions, launched in 2003.
RapidIO is itself creating quite a stir at the moment, following recent product launches by three vendors: Mercury Computer Systems Inc., Praesum Communications Inc., and Tundra Semiconductor Corp. (Toronto: TUN). (See Mercury Ships RapidIO Silicon Core, Mercury Intros RapidIO ATCA Platform, Praesum Intros RapidIO SwitchKit, and Tundra Unveils RapidIO Switch .)
All of these technologies have a limited time to prove themselves according to Simon Stanley, Analyst at Large at Heavy Reading and founder and principal consultant of Earlswood Marketing Ltd. "2005 has got to be the year when they deliver. Otherwise, they're toast," says Stanley. "The fact that Mercury has an ATCA system with serial RapidIO running on the backplane is pretty exciting."
— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading
RapidIO's role in telecom will be discussed in detail in a Light Reading Webinar, ATCA and RapidIO, tomorrow at 2:00 p.m. EST, hosted by Simon Stanley, Analyst at Large at Heavy Reading and founder and principal consultant of Earlswood Marketing. Registration information is available here.
For more on this topic, check out:
- The Light Reading Insider report:
— AdvancedTCA: Tomorrow's Telecom Hardware
For further education, visit the archives of related Light Reading Webinars: