ATCA and its hardware platform management at 15 years: How can I use them now?

3The ATCA [advanced telecommunications computing architecture] standard was adopted at the end of 2002; since that time, billions of dollars of ATCA-based products have shipped worldwide. The bulk of those products have gone into demanding high-end telecom applications worldwide, but there are numerous other applications that can benefit from the proven architectural strengths of ATCA.

What is ATCA’s Hardware Platform Management (HPM) layer? Here’s a look at the ATCA HPM architecture, which includes the following key elements and roles:

  • a Shelf Manager (optionally redundant) in each shelf or chassis [Author’s note: In ATCA and telecom generally, the term “shelf” is used where other industries would use the word “chassis.” This article uses those terms interchangeably.] that monitors and supervises the operations of that shelf and represents it to upper layers of management.
  • a logical System Manager, a conceptual function in the ATCA framework which manages the functions of one or more (perhaps dozens, hundreds, or more) shelves in an organization.
  • local management controllers (MCs) integrated into each HPM-enabled field-replaceable unit (FRU) in a shelf, each representing a FRU to the next higher layer. For instance, IPMCs, which are just one type of MC, represent ATCA boards or other top-level FRUs in a shelf to the Shelf Manager, while MMCs (module MCs) represent AMC modules to the IPMC of the carrier ATCA board on which they are installed.
  • a dual-redundant Intelligent Platform Management Bus (IPMB-0, I2C-based) that connects the Shelf Manager to the IPMCs of the FRUs in the shelf.
  • a dual-redundant Ethernet communication fabric that supports basic communication among the boards and the outside world, often used for control and management, including System Manager communication with the Shelf Manager.

Figure 1: ATCA HPM architecture and key governing specifications.

Figure 1 shows that the System Manager can include applications based on the Hardware Platform Interface (HPI), a complementary management API specification that was developed by the Service Availability Forum consortium. HPI is often used in ATCA systems as the interface between System Manager applications and the ATCA shelves they supervise. A Shelf Manager can include a built-in HPI server interface to support such configurations.

Key specifications that govern ATCA and related frameworks are also listed in Figure 1. The PICMG 3.x group defines the overall framework, including its HPM aspects, and the AMC.x group covers the hot-swappable AMC module framework, including its HPM layer. In MicroTCA, AMC modules are plugged directly into a shelf or chassis; the MTCA.x specifications cover that framework, the HPM aspects of which are based on ATCA.

The HPM.x group of specifications defines specific HPM facilities, including firmware upgrades and LAN-attached IPMCs. The latter facility allows IPMCs to link to the standard ATCA Ethernet base interface to complement IPMB-0 with a much higher performance communication link for management purposes (typically on a shared basis with other uses).

One non-PICMG framework that has heavily leveraged ATCA HPM is ANSI/VITA 46.11, the system-management architecture for the VPX-pluggable module framework used widely in critical embedded systems. While adopting the overall architecture and many detailed aspects of ATCA HPM, VITA 46.11 adapts the architecture in key ways to the specific needs of the VPX community. For instance, neither VPX nor VITA 46.11 supports hot-swapping modules in a live system. VITA 46.11 is being actively adopted in the growing VPX ecosystem.

For more background on ATCA HPM and related topics see the sidebar for a list of recent articles in this magazine and its sister publication, VITA Technologies.

How can you use ATCA HPM now?

Option 1: Adopt ATCA as-is on your new project. The advanced performance, robustness, high availability, and management benefits of ATCA and its HPM framework are a fine fit for many current applications, such as defense communications. For instance, an ATCA-based platform has been adopted as the basis for ship-based and complementary land-based IT infrastructure for the U.S. Navy and is in production rollout and already operational on dozens of the eventual hundreds of naval vessels. Billions of dollars in contracts have already been issued for this program.

Control of advanced semiconductor wafer-fabrication machines, cable TV back-end systems, and security subsystems for corporate communications networks are additional areas where ATCA’s capabilities fit key market needs.

Another recently active domain for ATCA is in high-energy physics applications. In this domain, which includes massive (measured in kilometers) instruments for high-energy physics experiments, the built-in high availability features of ATCA (and MicroTCA as well) are critical to mission success. PICMG 3.8 standardizes key ATCA extensions for this domain, while MTCA.4 and MTCA.4.1 do the same for MicroTCA.

There is a broad ecosystem of ATCA chassis, boards (also known as blades), and other components for new projects to choose from.

Option 2: Adapt and extend ATCA to meet your special needs. One example of this option is the Juniper (previously BTI Systems) 7800 Series cloud-scale open networking platform (covered in PICMG Winter 2013-2014 issue.) In this architecture, as well, backward compatibility with ATCA boards is maintained, but special slots add critical functionality to support the very high bandwidth communication features of this platform.

Figure 2 shows a reference design for an IPMC based on an advanced ASPEED Technologies server-management processor. It can be used on compliant ATCA FRUs, but also in extended architectures like either of the two described above. It is available with schematics, firmware source code, and documentation for use in any of the ATCA adoption/adaptation options described in this article. (See also PICMG April 2016 issue for more information.)

Figure 2: Schroff Pigeon Point reference design for an ATCA IPMC.

Option 3: Leverage ATCA’s mature HPM facilities, but define other platform aspects on a custom basis. It is possible to fully adopt the management architecture as shown in Figure 1 (and defined in the ATCA specifications), but apply it to a physical platform architecture that is not ATCA. For instance, the custom architecture may allow more boards in a single chassis than ATCA does or it may support alternate communication fabric topologies. Another option: the boards may be physically larger or smaller than ATCA boards. Leveraging the mature ATCA management architecture while adopting many otherwise-proprietary system aspects may be highly cost-effective for some companies. Adaptable Schroff Pigeon Point management components are available for all elements of the ATCA HPM architecture for companies choosing this option.

Mark Overgaard is Architect, System Management, for Pentair Electronics Protection. Mark was the founder and formerly the CTO of Pigeon Point Systems, which was acquired by Pentair in July 2015 and integrated into Pentair’s Electronics Protection platform under the Schroff brand. For more information readers may contact the company at

Pentair Electronics Protection

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