Rugged and Research Tap AdvancedTCA/MicroTCA

The “TCA” architectures of AdvancedTCA (ATCA) and MicroTCA (MTCA) are still going strong. Ironically, the growth of these Telecom Computing Architectures is largely outside of Telecom. The larger areas of growth for these technologies are Mil/Aero and Research/Labs.

Versatile Architecture with A Strong Ecosystem

ATCA is an attractive architecture due to its board real estate (when needed for higher processing power with dual socket high-end processors), excellent cooling capability that is ingrained in the specification, and high-bandwidth including 10G/40G Ethernet. And 100G Ethernet ATCA systems are in development. It’s easy to write off ATCA for Mil/Aero, as it’s a larger and thus typically heavier system platform.

Figure 1: By the placing the switches below the card cage and integrating them with the shelf manager, a 6U SlotSaver chassis can expand the payload slots from 4 to 6.

Figure 1: By the placing the switches below the card cage and integrating them with the shelf manager, a 6U SlotSaver chassis can expand the payload slots from 4 to 6.

However, applications such as the P-3 Orion submarine hunter (the aircraft which searched for the missing Malaysian airliner in 2014), have enjoyed the computing architecture’s strong ecosystem and versatility. For I/O and speciality needs, AdvancedTCA can readily opt to use carriers with Advanced Mezzanine Cards (AMCs). There are hundreds of standard AMCs in the marketplace from many vendors.

The Navy’s Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services (CANES) program appears to be going to ATCA.  Specialty rugged ATCA chassis with machined card cages, thicker sidewalls and reinforced corner sections will likely pop up in other Mil/Aero applications.

A SlotSaver AdvancedTCA chassis platform is a clever way to provide more performance density in a system. The shelf manager is combined with the 10G or 40G Ethernet Switch, allowing two extra payload slots where the switch cards would have been. The shelf managers are located below the card cage. In a 6U system, the user can have 6 payload slots and dual redundant 10G/40G switch and shelf manager cards. See Figure 1 showing an example.

ATCA is also being used in new Research/Lab applications. The High Energy Physics community is prototyping with ATCA. If the larger renowned accelerator facilities continue to commit to ATCA, undoubtedly some of the other labs will follow. Other research facilities are choosing ATCA because of the proven, solid ecosystem and superior performance.

More Wins Where RF Devices Are Used

MicroTCA, a form factor with SWaP-C superior to competing architectures such as OpenVPX and AdvancedTCA, continues to grow in Mil/Aero applications. The cost of a system has become increasingly important in recent years. Since many high-end modules such as FPGAs are used in high volumes in markets such as Communications and High Energy Physics, in the MicroTCA architecture, the pricing can be much more attractive.

Figure 2:  With a cavity in the rear of the enclosure for RF devices, analyzers or other equipment, this 2U MicroTCA can save overall rack space in a versatile, high-performance system.

Figure 2: With a cavity in the rear of the enclosure for RF devices, analyzers or other equipment, this 2U MicroTCA can save overall rack space in a versatile, high-performance system.

The MicroTCA architecture is seeing more wins in systems where RF devices are used. Figure 2 shows a MicroTCA enclosure with a cavity in the rear for RF devices, analyzers, or other special purpose commercial devices.  Mounting provisions allow these devices to be securely fastened within the 2U enclosure. This allows a wide range of COTS analyzers, RF gear, etc., to be used. This type of approach can certainly be applied to 5U MicroTCA systems as well, where a full 12 AMC/2 MCH approach can be incorporated.  Note that the cooling configuration would likely switch from side-to-side in the 2U to a front-to-rear cooled in a 5U. In the larger enclosure, care has to be taken to ensure that the cavity/device area is kept out of the airflow area.

Other features that make MicroTCA increasingly popular in Mil/Aero are ruggedized 1U chassis and 40GbE modules. Work is progressing in the PICMG 40G MicroTCA committee, and probe/test modules are being finalized.  The rugged 1U MicroTCA is unique in open standard backplane architectures. A full 6 AMC slots are available with redundant power modules in a rugged chassis designed to meet MIL-STD 901D and 810G.

MicroTCA is also popular in Research/Labs. The lightweight, smaller architecture has a vast ecosystem of A/D and D/A modules, FPGAs and I/O cards. High Energy Physics is using many of the MicroTCA.4 systems for its rear I/O.  Other research facilities are using the powerful combination of I/O cards, multi-protocol use across the backplane, and high Giga Samples Per Second (GSPS) performance modules. MicroTCA.0 and MicroTCA.4 systems have also been leveraged in Transportation and other applications.

Fewer Telecom Design Wins

What does Telecom have in store for the TCA architectures?  Many applications continue with upgrades in these form factors. Although concepts such as Open Compute and cloud-based solutions have caused delays in the use of ATCA in some new Telecom programs, most of the embedded community would not likely compete in high-volume regardless.

The contract manufacturers continue to enjoy the majority of that space. For the PICMG embedded community, there should still be some key wins in the Communications market for ATCA and MTCA, but much less so than 5-10 years ago.

The 100G push for AdvancedTCA is coming along, but will it have a big effect for ATCA systems?   Continuing to move up the performance scale keeps ATCA in the news and shows it has forward momentum and longevity. But, it’s hard to say whether the 100G systems will open up many new opportunities. The barriers for ATCA even at 10G and 40G speeds were perceived up-front costs, pizza-box solutions from large players with worldwide service capabilities, and the large push in utilizing the Cloud. There are fewer Telco opportunities where ATCA hardware and its high level of performance is required than in the past, particularly given its large size.

Many existing 10G and 40G systems were not fully utilized, using only a portion of the slots and available bandwidth. So, 100G may have the largest benefit of providing upgrades to the existing base. Certainly, there will be some specialty applications using 100G. The few companies that are pushing the envelope in Communications test systems or in Telco infrastructure are good candidates. The Research/Lab facilities will no doubt have interest in 100G ATCA. Other government projects are likely to seek bleeding-edge performance as well.

The Future

For a certain level of performance, the three main architectures for those upgrading from legacy CompactPCI and VME/64x (as well as new programs) are AdvancedTCA, MicroTCA and OpenVPX. OpenVPX will no doubt win a lot of business in Mil/Aero. With a focus to find solutions to cut the cost of VPX systems, Pixus is teaming with partners to explore new markets for the architecture. However, MicroTCA and AdvancedTCA will continue to dominate the non-rugged applications and will increasingly take a bit of the rugged market share as well.


Moll_Justin-2 copyJustin Moll is Vice President, US Market Development, Pixus Technologies.

Contact Information

Pixus Technologies

50 Bathurst Drive
Waterloo, Ontario, N2V 2C5

tele: 519-885-5775

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