Intel Xeon Processors Fast Track a Competitive Edge for Railway Data Centers

How highly scalable embedded processor technology from Intel® and modular COTS platforms enable railway data centers to integrate more functionality into a smaller footprint


New Demands of Modern Passenger Trains
With the digitization of the rolling stock, railway operators are looking for new ways to make transportation more efficient, safe, and passenger-friendly. Important features for improvement are better remote train monitoring and maintenance functionalities, as well as additional services to improve the passenger experience. Both are strategic areas, and each improvement enables railways to better compete against cars and airplanes.

Handling Train-Specific Functions
There are train-specific functions that focus on the provisioning of diagnostic data for predictive train maintenance, the transfer of this status data and, ultimately, failure alerts. This data allows precise monitoring in real-time, providing an exact status for better planning. Armed with this information, previously rigid maintenance cycles can be exchanged for a more efficient on-demand service. This not only saves costs, but also increases reliability because the need for maintenance is detected before a failure occurs.

Increasing Passenger Comfort
Functions that have become a part of the services available to passengers include the control of seat reservation and passenger information displays, train announcements, and CCTV servers for video surveillance. Digital order services mean more convenient at-the-passenger-seat catering, and digital on-board bistros include cash registers and automated alerts to optimize food and drink replenishment. Passenger experience can also be improved by extensive entertainment and information offerings. Typical functions include a dedicated web portal for travel-specific information, a content server for streaming the latest videos, and a broad choice of music.

Consolidating Different Functions in a Single System
Previously all these different functions demanded dedicated systems. But today modern multi-core processor technology and modular embedded computing standards for rugged environments make it possible to consolidate many applications on one single IT platform, improving the size, weight, power and cost (SWaP-C) demands of modern railways. Further benefits of this consolidation are easier maintenance and improved reliability due to a reduced number of dedicated systems, leading to even greater cost efficiency, higher availability of services and ultimately increased customer satisfaction.

Server-Grade Performance and Features a Must
The latest embedded server-grade processor technology, such as the Intel® Xeon® D-1500 processor family, enables the implementation of many different functions into one single system by utilizing virtualization technology. With up to 16 independent physical CPU cores and hyper-threading support for up to 32 virtual cores, Intel Xeon D processors are an ideal starting point for mobile data centers in trains. They offer a core frequency of up to 2.20 GHz at a maximum TDP of 45W, providing a highly concentrated computing performance. With built-in hardware virtualization, they also offer the required abstraction of software from hardware, enabling a hassle-free segmentation of different applications and operating systems for dedicated tasks. More features can easily be added later by simply adding another virtual machine. For these virtual machines, the Intel Xeon D-1500 processors support up to 128 GB fast and energy-efficient DDR4 RAM, which is important as they need to run up to 32 OSes. Lastly, they feature an extended availability of seven or more years, which is another key requirement for the long life cycle of railway applications.

Figure 1: Based on Intel® Xeon® D-1500 processors, the multicore SBC G25A from MEN Micro offers built-in hardware virtualization and is designed for in-vehicle data centers in trains, ships, and airplanes.

Standard COTS Offer Extreme Ruggedness and Flexibility
MEN Micro uses this processor technology on its powerful CompactPCI Serial Single Board Computers that are designed for mobile data centers with virtualization as a core component for state-of-the-art train IT platforms (Figure 1). The CompactPCI Serial standard by the PCI Industrial Manufacturing Group (PICMG), which has been maintained since 1997, is specifically developed for extremely robust, modular designs with passive backplanes. It therefore offers the required ruggedness to meet the high demands for use in the harsh railway environment where computers need to operate reliably for years in desert heat to arctic cold and under constant mechanical stress.

CompactPCI Serial—A Natural Choice
The CompactPCI Serial standard allows the integration of several high-bandwidth cards in one system which all communicate via the backplane (Figure 2). Since the standard also enables modular configurations, there is no need for complex, power-hungry cabling that would otherwise be required on the front end. The modular system design offers the advantage that only one system needs to be qualified and maintained for all essential functions. The individual cards can be plugged in or removed as required to form functional units that can be swapped at any time during operation: Wireless connections can be established via WLAN, UMTS, GSM, and GSM-R, etc. and combined with the latest Intel processor architecture, Ethernet switches, and modern mass storage media.

Figure 2: CompactPCI Serial enables high-performance train IT platforms in a compact 19-inch 4U form factor with fanless operation and EN 50155 qualification.

Already on Board All German ICEs
One example of a train IT platform based on these design principles is the new ZIP system, which is being deployed in all 256 ICEs operated by German DB. Jointly developed by MEN Micro and DB Fernverkehr AG, the new ZIP system consolidates two separately hosted application types into one single 19-inch system (Figure 3). The ZIP system is controlled by two CPUs, each responsible for dedicated tasks. One CPU, the Business Service Platform or BSP, hosts enterprise applications. The other CPU, the Customer Service Platform (CSP), provides all the functions that passengers can use directly on their end devices.

The individual platform functions of the CSP and BSP are virtualized, which extends the physical separation of the CPUs with additional partitioning on the software side. For example, the passenger portal runs on the same multicore board as the streaming portal, but on a different virtual machine. Importantly, virtualization also allows the addition of new features without hardware and software modification, so functionality can be expanded as necessary. At the same time, the system is designed to be flexible and can handle further passenger comfort or operator applications without noticeable loss of performance or quality.

Figure 3: Two in one: Two cards—connected over the backplane via Ethernet—and a redundant power supply in a single system.

Flexible FPGA-Based I/Os
Based on field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), the I/O interfaces can thus meet train-specific interface requirements, e.g. CAN, RS422, or RS485 without the need to design a dedicated board for each new type of train. For the train announcements, the system also features a dedicated interface card in accordance to the UIC 568 audio standard. All implemented CPU, PSU, and extension cards support the extended temperature range of -40 to +85 °C, are sealed against dust and moisture by a protective lacquer, and all components are soldered for highest resistance against shock and vibration. The use of standard components guarantees low development costs and a short implementation time. Thanks to the modular design, the system can also be extended or modified so that it is future proof for many new demands to come.

All-in-One Design—The New ZIP IT Platform
Most people will come in contact with DB’s new train IT platform ZIP via the revamped ICE portal. The train IT platform is the data hub that provides all ICE passengers with free information and entertainment, as well as a wealth of details on their current journey. Passengers can use their browsers to view travel information and access DB infotainment and entertainment offerings. An app also provides access to a wide choice of movies to watch. In addition to these passenger comfort functions, the ZIP integrates a separate server for train-specific functions such as the provisioning of diagnostic data for predictive train maintenance, the transfer of status data, and failure alerts. The IT platform, ZIP, further controls seat reservation and passenger information displays as well as train announcements. Finally, it will also be used to manage the on-board bistro—including the cash register, passenger orders, and automatic replenishment of food and drink.

Figure 4: Jointly developed by MEN Micro and DB Fernverkehr AG, DB’s new train IT platform, ZIP, makes it possible for ICE passengers to access information and entertainment.

The Advantages of Professional Cooperation
Wolfgang Krupke, Project Manager at Deutsche Bahn, notes, “The collaboration with MEN Micro, the supplier of our ZIP platform, was very productive and we were able to discuss all issues at eye level at all times, which made the collaboration extremely efficient and fruitful. We have gladly accepted MEN’s suggestions for technical improvements as they have invariably contributed to a high-performance, stable, and scalable IT platform on ICE trains. The fact that MEN also carried out the certifications on our behalf was the icing on our professional collaboration.”

Jarvis Wenger is Product Solutions Manager, MEN Micro.

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