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AdvancedTCA and the "Law of Accelerating Returns"

I was struck by a comment made by our colleague Anthony Ambrose from in this issue's “Successful history rides on many shoulders” timeline. He marvels that the AdvancedTCA backplane bandwidth has grown from 1 Gbps to per lane in less than a decade. That is impressive when you think about it for a bit.

His comment caused me to recall a fascinating keynote speech I was lucky enough to hear a few years ago at a telecom conference. Ray Kurzweil, a noted author, inventor, and futurist, spoke at the event. Ray is no wild-eyed shaman, but a successful MIT engineering graduate who has built a number of companies during his career. His first product was a text-to-speech device for blind people that scanned printed material and then spoke it. His first customer was musician Stevie Wonder. Their subsequent collaborations led Ray to develop a family of electronic keyboard instruments that could imitate conventional instruments and produce extremely realistic sounds.

In recent decades Ray has focused on the future, and like all futurists his predictions have ranged from the prescient to the unlikely. But there is a common theme to much of his writings and that is that more and more things in our world are changing at an exponential rate. Ray observes that in addition to those technology strides familiar to us from Moore’s Law, technological developments that continue to improve exponentially include data density, memory chip and disk drive capacity, network data volumes, and of course data transmission speeds. He calls this the “Law of Accelerating Returns.” Two of his books, The Age of Intelligent Machines and The Age of Spiritual Machines detail some of his thinking. I don’t agree with many of his predictions, but these two books are interesting reads.

What comes after 40G for AdvancedTCA?

Where am I going with this? Well, the answer is that I’m asking our readers to think about what comes after 40G for AdvancedTCA. How are we going to go faster? We know we must. One stock answer is that optical backplanes will be the future, but they have been five years in the future for about the last 20 years. They will be developed, I believe, but they aren’t commercially viable yet. But I don’t think anyone could imagine copper would have taken us as far as it has. Is the next speed step 100G or maybe 160G? How will that be done? Wider lanes are one answer, but there are others, including full mesh architectures and multilevel signaling, wherein backplane signals are not simple differential zeros and ones, but also can be one-quarter, one-half, or three-fourths of the voltage swing. By encoding four levels instead of just two, data density can be doubled. The amazing improvements in SerDes chips over the last few years suggest that this is very possible.

OK, back down to earth. Speaking of 40G, Gary Lee from Fulcrum Microsystems explains in his article this issue that simply having high backplane bandwidth isn’t the entire solution. The data flows in these systems must be balanced and efficient. Our European correspondent, Hermann Strass, explains how systems are being widely deployed in very-high-speed train systems in Germany to monitor performance and safety and to provide wireless communications. These systems are from MEN Mikro, which led the effort to develop the recently released CompactPCI Serial specification. CompactPCI Serial provides a major refresh to this popular technology.

In his regular Software Corner column, Curt Schwaderer details what is involved in making the transition to with a planned approach. And don’t miss the aforementioned timeline article, which offers many insightful thoughts from leading AdvancedTCA proponents.

OpenSystems Media, PICMG, and Conference ConCepts are cosponsoring a celebration throughout this year of the 10th anniversary of the birth of AdvancedTCA. Coming up on the celebratory agenda: the June 9th AdvancedTCA Virtual Event: Opening the Next 10 Years of Networks. As with last year’s inaugural AdvancedTCA Virtual Event, it promises to be another can’t-afford-to-miss event, and kicks off with a round table on keeping the AdvancedTCA innovations coming. And as noted in my most recent column, calendars should be marked now for the Seventh Annual AdvancedTCA Summit & Exhibition presented by Conference ConCepts November 1-2 at the San Jose Doubletree Hotel.

A special logo has been developed to commemorate AdvancedTCA’s first 10 years. It can be downloaded at http://bit.ly/atca10yrlogo and I encourage anyone promoting AdvancedTCA products to use it.

The PICMG AdvancedTCA specification has lived a robust 10 years, with the strength of its architecture preparing it for continuing well into the future.

Joe Pavlat, Editorial Director