ATCA/Standard Servers

Intel Pushes Ethernet Backplanes

A new twist in moves aimed at helping vendors slash the time and money it takes to develop new telecom equipment has become a focus of attention at this week’s Intel Developer Forum.

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:

For further education, visit the archives of related Light Reading Webinars:

Peter Heywood 12/5/2012 | 3:24:49 AM
re: Intel Pushes Ethernet Backplanes Good post!

** I think folk point to the PC as an example of the benefits of standardizing subsystems, don't they?

** My impression is that a lot of vendors are now in a position where they no longer can afford to spend loads of time and money on developing telecom equipment from scratch.

On the one hand, the risk of spending all of this time and money and then the product failing to generate huge revenues is too great.

On the other hand, the big vendors disbanded their R&D teams during the recession, and the folk that were laid off are now developing subsystems for sale to their previous employers.

These R&D guys now either work for contract manufacturing organizations or specialist outfits like Denmark's Tpack A/S and Murton Consultancy & Design Ltd., (both of whom effectively develop the guts of Sonet/SDH multiservice provisioning platforms that are then sold by vendors as their own products)

All of this ATCA, ASI, RapidIO malarky is an effort to standardize these subsystems so vendors aren't locked in to a single supplier, and can benefit from competition from subsystem suppliers.

At least, that's my take on it.

ironccie 12/5/2012 | 3:24:49 AM
re: Intel Pushes Ethernet Backplanes I'm confused on this one. Someone please help me out. Is it a good or a bad idea to standardize the backplane? On paper, it looks good, but traditionally I've found that every silicone chip has defects. Say you do use this same backplane as your competition, what do you have to gain by having the same defect as them all? We would have the added benefit of complexity of too many people putting switches together sort of like automechanics and it would be harder for folks to go from job to job as in depth vendor knowledge is part of success (W. E. Deming).

No vendor does switching across their fabric like Foundry does. Nobody does it like Cisco. Nobody does it like Juniper. Nobody does it like Extreme. Their fabrics set them apart for the good or the better. If they all had the same boxes, then the best company would be the one with the most money? Cisco, Foundry, Juniper, Extreme? I'll go with that ranking.

I don't think it is as good of an idea to standardize fabrics as it would be to standardize algorithms to run over fabrics to provide QoS for oversubscribed egress ports (back pressure). Isn't it the hardware guys who are always ahead of the software guys? Perhaps we should build the perfect model of the functionality of a switch fabric from a customers viewpoint and then let the vendors determine how to achieve that in hardware. That will help Moore's law faster as they try for the O/O/O solution.

sigint 12/5/2012 | 3:24:48 AM
re: Intel Pushes Ethernet Backplanes 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.

There was some talking of evolving a standard to use Fractional XAUI, i.e., use one lane of the four lane XAUI interface (2.5G, effective). It was supposed to fix the concern quoted above. I wonder what happened to that effort?
allip 12/5/2012 | 3:24:47 AM
re: Intel Pushes Ethernet Backplanes ironccie, you have an absolutely valid point when we are talking about pure communication boxes. None of the top 3-4 vendors (which you mentioned in your post) will "switch" over to standards based backplane anytime in the near future (5yrs), atleast not for their top line products.

however, as Peter pointed out in his post that the target segment is PC and as per the article Storage systems also. I am a bit skeptical about the fusion of Ethernet backplane and ASI/sRIO standards in these fields. My 2c on this is that Ethernet alone coupled with PCI-Express/sRIO will dominate this space. I donGÇÖt see ASI (due to its focus on low-mid end fabrics) blending well in this ecosystem of storage subsystem and PC domains. Besides why would one like to incorporate additional complexity/layering by blending AS and Ethernet? vendors would be better off with using Ethernet for their complete solution or use proprietary soln the box.

here's my take on the interconnectivity

it will be ALLIP in the storage domain eventually,
1. Storage- Ethernet
2. PC/Embedded device - PCI-Express
3. Wireless/DSP - sRIO
4. HPC - Infiniband.
5. Core/Metro routers - Proprietary
6. Enterprise switch - Proprietary

Most of the control plane to data plane connectivity will move towards PCI-Express from the current PCI base.

would like to hear ur thoughts...

ironccie 12/5/2012 | 3:24:44 AM
re: Intel Pushes Ethernet Backplanes Allip,

Convergence is a delicate topic... What about v6? I think Ethernet is winning, but IP has a battle to fight with itself first. How can I converge on IP when there are 2 versions of which the v6 is far superior but a big uknown?

I see HPC, media, research, and home consumer uses for non IP networks for a long time to come. This is the importance for service providers to install L2 connectivity and not get stuck in the IP way of thinking because provider are offering L2 with VPLS on MPLS (trending that way).

There are other technologies in the battle against all Ethernet/IP. Check out the work being done on sensor networks (802.15.4) where it makes no sense to have the inferior IP protocol ;-) This is being promoted by the gentleman who invented Ethernet.

As Peter points out, there is reason for them to believe they could succeed in selling standardized fabrics, but there is also reason to believe that the technology front runners will run faster.

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