Thursday, 11 February 2010

It’s time to revisit MicroTCA

Many commentators have written off MicroTCA as too expensive for mainstream adoption. But are they missing a key development? Like many new technology implementations, first-generation MicroTCA platforms were designed for flexibility rather than low-cost. The latest platforms address the cost issue head-on with cost optimized solutions for multiple applications from the enterprise to the carrier edge. So now is the time to re-evaluate MicroTCA as a key platform for new developments.

MicroTCA is a hugely flexible platform with many different chassis configurations and options of switching, clocking, power and cooling. Early adopters are using MicroTCA across a wide range of applications including wireless base stations, multimedia gateways, military communications and industrial control. At the core of the MicroTCA system is the MicroTCA carrier hub (MCH). The MCH integrates switching, clocking and system management. For carrier grade systems dual MCH modules, dual power supplies and dual cooling trays are usually required.

Equipment manufacturers have been slow to adopt MicroTCA often citing the cost of chassis, AMC modules and, most often, the MCH. Although all MicroTCA systems require MCH, cooling and power supply, the MicroTCA specifications do not mandate these functions are separate modules. This gives vendors significant flexibility when designing solutions for enterprise and other non-carrier class applications. During the last twelve months the number of MicroTCA chassis and systems available has more than doubled and vendors have dramatically reduced the cost of MicroTCA systems by optimizing chassis design, limiting flexibility and integrating key functions on to the backplane or chassis.

The Advantech starter kit includes a six slot MicroTCA chassis with MCH module, Intel Core2 Duo U7500 CPU based AMC module and a storage AMC module integrating 80GB SATA HDD, all for €1,999 (<$1,500). The Armvida Edge2000 with Gigabit Ethernet switching and two AMC slots costs just $500. For larger systems the Performance Technologies AMP5070 with 6 AMC slots is under $2000 in volume. For carrier grade applications systems are available from nearly ten vendors including Advantech, GE Intelligent Platforms, Emerson, Kontron and Performance Technologies. Many of these also offer lower cost configurations for less demanding applications.

A key reason for considering MicroTCA is the rapid introduction of AMC modules. There are now more than 200 AMC modules available integrating many functions including general-purpose CPU, DSP and FPGA, storage, packet processing and I/O. I/O modules are available with support for most network interfaces, general-purpose interfaces and some analog lines. Using these AMC modules equipment providers can build almost any small-scale networking or computing system.

It takes at least five years for any new platform to become established. This was true of AdvancedTCA and many preceding platforms, including CompactPCI, so we should not be surprised by the relatively slow adoption so far as the five-year anniversary for MicroTCA comes in the middle of 2011. The level of support already demonstrated by the ecosystem and early adopters suggests that MicroTCA is on track to reach mainstream adoption during 2011 and 2012. If you want to be ahead of the competition then you should be looking at MicroTCA as a key platform during 2010.

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