The Incredible Shrinking Server Blade

The Incredible Shrinking Blade Server: New Possibilities beyond the Data Center

Many embedded applications require compact, high-performance networking and data transfer capabilities. The range of power and connectivity of today?s MicroTCA technology offers opportunities for small, reliable and scalable data communications in dedicated application areas.


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While blade servers have grown in popularity as a high-density, cost-efficient and space-saving alternative to rackmount servers in data centers and server farms, newer computing platforms such as MicroTCA now make it possible for additional applications to take advantage of the blade’s benefits. Shrinking the blade server to a quarter of the size of a rackmount server has its rewards, especially if the solution matches the high-availability, performance, low-power and rugged requirements of the industry and application.

Originally designed as a telecommunication application architecture, MicroTCA delivers the advanced features that are making it an attractive and smaller blade server option for network-centric systems in military, medical and industrial markets. Remote applications in these markets are realizing the advantages of the performance, management functionality and high-availability features of MicroTCA. Plus, MicroTCA offers flexibility and system scalability benefits with its compatibility to a variety of chassis form factors, from a small four-module blade to a 19-inch rack-mountable redundant system. So, whether the blade server is needed at a regional health center to support an MRI machine, or at a military ground support and control center monitoring an unmanned aerial vehicle, MicroTCA has become a popular choice to fit these environments. In addition, while MicroTCA is certainly tough enough for a broad spectrum of applications, soon a new rugged MicroTCA specification will be available to address the blade server needs of more environmentally harsh environments.

Smaller but Powerful

At a quarter of the size of AdvancedTCA, a MicroTCA 2U is 3.5 inches in height by 0.6 to 1.2 inches in width by 7.22 inches deep, which is even smaller than 3U CompactPCI or VME cards. Despite its small size, MicroTCA offers high bandwidth, both in terms of compute and communication bandwidth. By packing up to 12 compute blades on a single backplane, MicroTCA offers a tremendous amount of computing power. The communication bandwidth for MicroTCA typically ranges from 40 Gbits/s to over 1 Terabit/s depending upon the implementation or application. For space-constrained designs, most would find that a MicroTCA-based blade implementation would give them enough networking and computing performance for even the most demanding applications.

In a small 2U form factor, MicroTCA delivers high processing capacity and extremely high communication bandwidth. Today that same 2U system incorporates 12 blades that can each utilize a multicore processor. Due to MicroTCA’s compact size, two systems could be placed side-by-side in a 19-inch rack; therefore offering twice the computing power still within a small form factor. By expanding that system to a 3U or even 4U system, it could accommodate as many as 24 cores to broaden the scope of relevant applications even further in a very small footprint. In addition, MicroTCA satisfies size, weight and power requirements in a growing number of high-end industrial and medical designs. MicroTCA offers up to 21 high-speed serial connections per blade on the backplane—versus the two generally found in CompactPCI implementations—each providing up to 2.5 Gbit/s bandwidth.

Critical to any net-centric server application is its high availability. By reducing or eliminating unscheduled system downtime, a system’s total cost of ownership can also be favorably reduced. High availability has become a mandatory requirement in server environments due to the costly ramifications for end customers if the failure of one component is felt across the entire network. The good news is that features that support high availability are innate to MicroTCA and essentially come for “free.”

Central to high availability for MicroTCA, and many other form factors, is the Intelligent Platform Management Interface (IPMI). IPMI is available to notify users when the system is not running at peak performance. IPMI allows remote monitoring and control of the system for thermal management and simplified troubleshooting and maintenance. Fans can be controlled automatically as temperature thresholds change, and if a board does fail, it can be removed and replaced with the system up and running. IPMI-based health monitoring, along with full redundancy with fail-over, prevents any single point of failure in the system.

MicroTCA leverages AdvancedMC modules (AMCs) to meet the needs of compact, low-cost systems by connecting AMCs directly to a backplane, without the need for a carrier card. MicroTCA reuses many of the components and technologies developed for AdvancedTCA. This lowers the cost of entry for both component vendors and equipment manufacturers designing new systems. AdvancedMCs can act as building-block components that enable designers to take advantage of AdvancedTCA’s core network capabilities while utilizing MicroTCA’s smaller form factor.

As a PICMG standard, MicroTCA has built-in regulatory compliance that is compatible with other computing technology standards. Because of this, COTS MicroTCA-based products shorten time-to-market and reduce development costs.

MicroTCA-Based Blade Servers for Medical

In medical imaging equipment such as X-ray, ultrasound and MRI devices, the more images and data doctors can evaluate while examining a patient, the better patient care they can potentially provide. The need for extremely high-resolution images that can be manipulated has driven medical equipment developers to require better graphics, faster processing and faster communication capabilities. While some imaging applications can be handled off-line by batch processing, many cases require patient images in real time. But the need for processing power does not end there. Processing can also provide assistance in the analysis of images and related patient information in screening and diagnostics. Requirements for real-time imaging include pattern recognition, organ rendering, volumetric analysis, multiple image type comparisons, and the ability to process related patient information from databases. Bringing these tasks to remote or mobile outpatient facilities is in increasing demand.

In emergency medicine and rescue services where every second counts, getting the right information at the right time is vital, so real-time data is crucial. For many embedded medical applications, size also matters. As the medical industry advances, the requirements will likely change again. However, these applications must be updated without the need to start completely from scratch, so scalability and upgradeability must also be built in.

Beyond processing performance and scalability needs, equipment designed for medical use must meet extended lifespan requirements, with some applications expected to last as long as 10 to 15 years. As in all embedded applications, time-to-market is also a concern. So, reducing implementation time, plus the time allotted for FDA and other regulatory testing and approvals, is also key a factor for consideration. Last but certainly not least, budgets for these products are not unlimited, so costs need to be optimized whenever possible.

MicroTCA is an ideal architecture for a blade server application in the medical imaging market because of its small form factor and processing power. Broadening its scope even further for data-intensive imaging applications, MicroTCA gives the option of implementing multiple multicore processing blades on a single backplane. Multicore processors have become mainstream and can bring significant benefits to medical image processing by adding flexibility and scalability to system designs that offer high functional density, high throughput and minimum latency. Design integration is also simplified with MicroTCA’s form factor flexibility.

A medical image processing system can be implemented in a smaller industry-standard MicroTCA server blade instead of a stack of servers. In comparison to stacks of isolated servers, systems based on MicroTCA blades provide the benefit of higher computing density and the tighter coupling of processors over the backplane. MicroTCA also provides the benefit of having the Ethernet network infrastructure built into the system. Other benefits of embedded processor technology are lower power consumption and active power management.

As an example, a computer tomography image processing medical system could implement a MicroTCA-based multiple processor blade server. Such a server could be either tightly coupled over high-speed buses such as SRIO, or loosely coupled over network protocols (GbE, 10GbE). This application also requires high-performance graphics boards, which interconnect over high-speed PCI Express lanes. The main task for the MicroTCA blade is to reconstruct the image (Figure 1).

Sensor data is digitized in an I/O module and then the raw data is sent to multiple processor boards over a high-speed connection using a standard protocol (such as SRIO or Ethernet). In the preprocessing step a 3D image is reconstructed from the raw image data. Preprocessing also typically includes cleaning out sensor artifacts, calibration and geometrical alignments. In post-processing, the 3D images are interpreted in different formats that the technician or physician can specify. The image can finally be displayed and archived.

An appropriate choice for medical imaging systems is the Kontron OM6120, a MicroTCA platform that supports up to 12 AMC modules. It is designed for performance and versatility for high-bandwidth applications while realizing significant cost improvements compared to conventional MicroTCA platforms. Cost optimization is achieved by a streamlined design that includes Power Management and Fan Control on the backplane, and pluggable Power Supply Units instead of MicroTCA Power Modules (Figure 2).

A platform like the OM6120 also provides the flexibility to use single and double-width form factor AMC modules that give medical imaging systems the high processing power, high throughput and low latency they require. The ability to accommodate a large number of multicore AMC modules and allowing a tight coupling of processors over high-speed communication links over the backplane, the Kontron OM6120 is well suited for image processing applications.

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