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A380: The flying Power PC server farm

How many MIPS flying high
Mon Sep 27 2004, 09:16
AIRBUS AND THALES have let loose information about the in-flight entertainment (IFE) system to equip the A380 mega-monster 550 seat aircraft scheduled to take fight in August 2005. The Thales TopSeries i-5000 system has been under development for over four years and been extensively lab tested in Irvine, California, with Airbus taking possession of the system. Several articles have come out on the i-5000, but definitely has the tech scoop over Aviation Week on the hardware behind the seat cushions.

Running in at a cool $8 million per aircraft, each A380 will have an average of about 6 terabytes of networked computer storage onboard capable of holding up to 1200 movies in MPEG-22 format - a far cry from today's half dozen looping video channels. Every seat on board will have a copper gigabit Ethernet connection and be able to pull up video-on-demand. On the back-end, there's a pair of fiber GigE switches, enough horsepower to add (i.e cram) more than 550 seats for on-demand video if necessary. (It might not be comfortable for the passengers, but they'll have access to a big movie library to keep them happy during the course of the flight).

Screen size will depend on your seating class, with those in steerage, er, economy getting an 8.4 inch LCD while those traveling first-class will get a whopping 17 inch LCD seat-back display with a 16 x 9 (i.e. HDTV grade) aspect ratio. As noted earlier, the video is currently MPEG-2 format and there are plans to roll out a software upgrade to support MPEG-4 once there's a little bit more comfort with the standard being formalized. Processing power to turn the MPEG-2 into video is done by a IBM PowerPC CPU behind the LCD. Thales looked at Intel chips, but decided the PowerPC family had a better performance growth path over the next 10 years.

Let's stop for a minute and review: PowerPC chips in 550 seats. Up to 6 TB of networked storage. GigE to each processor. It can't be long before some sick puppy tries to con A380 operators into uploading grid computing applications on their airplanes for processing data between stops. Just think of all that idle computing time at the gate while passengers get on and off, and the plane gets turned around for its next flight. It's about a 5.5 hour flight from DC to London and a hop from LA or SF to Sydney can take 12-14 hours. Not everyone will be watching movies the entire time, so there's bound to be a lot of excess cycles during a typical flight.

The system is fully equipped to handle off-aircraft communications for web surfing, e-mail, and "live" broadcast television, so (in theory) you could actually run that grid application on an A380 and do remote programming through the plane's wireless network connection. Sorry, forgot to mention that Thales already has a remote diagnostic capability where an engineer can remotely access the i-5000 network through the Internet to take control and do testing. Ain't that cool?

Thales has also demonstrated a capability to support up to 260 video streams wirelessly on an aircraft, a feature that is less attractive today due to a potential for RF interference, but as further testing and certification of Wi-Fi-esque technology is done, future versions of the Thales server could be backfitted into older aircraft and built into aircraft by ditching the wires. Less wire means less weight and better fuel economy. Everyone in the airline industry wants better fuel economy these days.

About the weakest "link" here is the off-board broadband connection between this flying set of processors and the rest of the world. Inmarsat is expected to offer a single-channel 432 Kbps data link by early 2006 with an option to double it (i.e. 864 Kbps net). Boeing's Connexion is agnostic and is supposed to offer 5 Mbps performance.

Remarkably, there's little mention of how people are supposed to connect their laptops into the system so they can tap into a plane's broadband connection to get the office e-mail and the latest INQ; I'm guessing it's an RJ-45 at the seat and/or an option for a couple of Wi-Fi hubs. Airlines are starting to get comfy with Wi-Fi as it operates on a frequency that doesn't seem to muck with flight avionics and also gets rid of the silly wires and maintenance on unsealed Ethernet ports. µ

* APOLOGIES. Carelessness caused this story to be filed under Mike Magee's name. It was always Doug Mohney's.


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