Will MicroTCA Fulfill Its Promise?

By Craig Szydlowski, Technology Editor

Kontron MicroTCA Chassis

Low cost … small size … high throughput … is just some of the buildup surrounding the emerging MicroTCA standard. Riding the coat tails of the AdvancedTCA standard, MicroTCA leverages existing technology, engineering expertise and industry participation. Revenue forecasts predict fairly steep growth, anticipating MicroTCA deployments in new telecom and embedded application segments. This may require the industry to address special needs like ruggedized systems, application specific cards and small, low-cost chassis.

Basic Promises

Drawing from AdvancedTCA and AdvancedMC (mezzanine cards) efforts, MicroTCA is already on the right path to deliver high availability, maintainability and scalability. These features, plus the benefits derived from standardsbased platforms, have convinced many telecom equipment manufacturers to move away from expensive proprietary solutions. Likewise, MicroTCA extends similar capabilities to relatively smaller infrastructure installations, like remote or mobile base stations.

Many traditional embedded computing applications have deployed the VME (Versa Module Euroboard) standard, widely used in industrial, commercial and military applications. After 25 years, it seems a safe bet the embedded industry is ready for a new standard that implements the latest processors and interfaces, while respecting space and power consumption constraints. “Time-to-market and cost efficiency are the obvious benefits of moving toward a standard, off-the-shelf platform,” says Lori Scott, marketing programs manager for the Intel® Communications Infrastructure Group.

Technology Reuse

MicroTCA takes AdvancedMC cards, originally designed to plug into AdvancedTCA carriers, and treats them like blades that slot into modular backplane/ chassis systems. By providing a smaller form factor, MicroTCA can deliver the features of AdvancedTCA to equipment at the far reaches of the telecom network. Outside of traditional telecom applications, MicroTCA is generating interest in field-oriented deployments - military, aerospace and government sectors - such as troops on naval ships using WiFi for communications. Interest is also growing in embedded applications valuing high availability, like industrial and process control, medical equipment and instrumentation applications.

MicroTCA currently defines MicroTCA Carrier Hubs to provide the functionality of AdvancedTCA carriers that run management software and contain backplane interface switches, fabric control and other functions. Carrier hubs, as well as backplane power management hardware, will add to system overhead and cost.

“The reuse of ATCA elements, along with the size and performance scalability of MicroTCA, now extends the range of ATCA to cover nearly all telecom applications. At the same time, by leveraging the modular software and hardware developed for ATCA, MicroTCA keeps development costs down while maintaining the performance and reliability required by telecom applications,” says Stuart Jamieson, an architect at Emerson Network Power.

Revenue Forecast

“Market researchers expect MicroTCA to quickly become a multi-billion dollar market with the benefits of wide availability, short development times, and low manufacturing costs,” says Ernie Bergstrom, VP Research & Chief Analyst at Crystal Cube Consulting.

MicroTCA is an obvious fit for telecom equipment at the edge of the network. It is less clear which traditional embedded applications will embrace this new standard and drive volume. PICMG members working on the MicroTCA specification are trying to answer this question so they can anticipate the needs of emerging market segments.

Specialized Needs

In order for MicroTCA adoption to gain traction beyond its communication roots, it will need to address non-telecom requirements. Data acquisition and industrial control applications will need cards that won’t be useful to most AdvancedTCA systems. Military and aerospace equipment must operate in harsh environments and undergo rigorous field testing. And will suppliers simply scale down AdvancedTCA chassis, which can be rather large and expensive, or develop smaller frames with fewer slots at lower price-points?

Automation and Control applications need cards that operate in both analog and digital domains, as well as support a diverse set of interfaces and protocols. “Although there is a growing ecosystem of AdvancedTCA vendors striving to be interoperable, there is still a fair amount of work to be done, especially with application specific AdvancedMCs such as for DSPs, NPUs, E1/T1, IPSec, storage, and processing”, says Sven Freudenfeld, North American business development for the Kontron line of AdvancedTCA and AdvancedMC modular solutions.

Defense and aerospace require MicroTCA to make improvements in several environment oriented areas: shock and vibration tolerance, EMI/EMC emissions, and operating temperature ranges. “To allow AMCs and MicroTCA to become viable COTS technologies for all functional elements of the defense and aerospace architectures, ruggedization efforts must begin now. To that end, Hybricon and Motorola have

“One leading manufacturer has already reported selling over a million dollars worth of development systems. A recent survey of telecom equipment makers found over 60% planning MicroTCA products.” Ernie Bergstrom, VP Research & Chief Analyst, Crystal Cube Consulting

teamed to develop a ruggedized version of Motorola’s first commercial MicroTCA platform, for use as a development and design-in vehicle for rugged applications,” say PIGMG members Willie Coffey and Bob Truffford at Motorola Inc. and Bob Sullivan at Hybricon. They add, “Many defense solution providers and prime contractors are interested in deploying platforms based on open PICMG specifications, specifically AdvancedMC and MicroTCA. This interest is fueled by the bandwidth, management and flexibility potential provided by these platforms.”

Suppliers are already creating a range of MicroTCA chassis with names like “Cube” and “Pico” that support a wide range - 2, 4, 12, 24, and 48 – of AdvancedMC cards. “Surely high-volume applications will involve only a small number of MicroTCA cards in a small, low-cost framework,” says Ernie Bergstrom at Crystal Cube Consulting. He adds, “The connector is still another issue. What is good enough for an add-on board may not suffice for mobile or portable applications. Can the industry develop other solutions without sacrificing low cost and system interoperability?”

MicroTCA is off to a running start and is creating a lot of enthusiasm. Coupled with some of the latest low power multi-core processors, it can satisfy higher levels of compute performance and I/O processing to serve applications such as medical imaging, industrial and defense. By combining the knowledge from prior VME and AdvancedTCA engineering efforts, MicroTCA stands on the shoulders of its predecessors.



Craig Szydlowski is a contributing editor to Embedded Intel Solutions. He is a technology writer with over twenty years of semiconductor and embedded market experience working for Intel, IBM and Siemens. He holds a BSEE from Yale University and an MBA from the Wharton School.