The Migration Path to MicroTCA
MicroTCA looks to VME, CompactPCI and AdvancedTCA for potential converts to the emerging standard.
MARK LOWDERMILK, EMBEDDED PLANET
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MicroTCA packs a lot of punch in a small form factor that is supported by the powerful processor boards available coupled with multiple high-speed fabric options including XAUI, sRIO, GbE and PCIe. The primary selling points for MicroTCA are impressive: an affordable next-generation computing architecture, high communications bandwidth, the latest multicore processors, support for redundancy and high availability—all in a small system footprint that is extremely scalable. But as with any emerging standard, adoption by its target markets is the ultimate measure of an architecture’s success.
In the case of MicroTCA, several markets stand squarely in its crosshairs: the telecom market with a focus on network and wireless communications equipment; test and measurement, including communications test and high-speed manufacturing inspection equipment; and the increasingly communication-centric Mil/Aerospace market. Additional potential markets include medical imaging, industrial controls and the physics research community. MicroTCA addresses the trend toward open standards, takes advantage of multicore processor capabilities, and is configurable to easily allow tailored solutions across many applications and markets (Figure 1).
EP4080A Freescale 8core processor in and Advanced Mezzanine Card form factor.
Within these markets, MicroTCA is hoping to attract interest from CompactPCI, VME and VPX users looking for a next generation architecture that can deliver the increased performance of double the transfer rates, scalability and longevity these architectures lack, as well as from AdvancedTCA adherents that are looking for a less expensive—yet still robust—feature set in a much smaller footprint. There are trade-offs in terms of capacity, size and cost to consider. In addition, MicroTCA has the hot-swappable feature these other systems lack. OEMs who move to MicroTCA are going to do so because it is a next generation architecture that delivers increased performance in a very small package.
Although MicroTCA was introduced by the PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group (PICMG) in 2006, there are already over 50 companies worldwide offering Advanced Mezzanine Card (AMC) modules for the standard. This can be attributed to the fact that MicroTCA utilizes the same AMC cards as another PICMG effort—AdvancedTCA—which started in 2002.
MicroTCA is gaining traction quickly because it is an offshoot of AdvancedTCA. There is an overlap of the ecosystems in that regard, and as a result, both architectures benefit. As a market, telecommunications demands the maximum bandwidth and transfer rates possible. Other markets such as industrial controls do not require the capacity of a full-blown ATCA system, but can still benefit for the economies of scale and functionality of Advanced Mezzanine Cards (Figure 2).
SFP module in an Advanced Mezzanine Card form factor.
The Move from AdvancedTCA
Perhaps the most logical migration path to MicroTCA lies with AdvancedTCA users looking for a lower cost solution and a smaller footprint. The original intent of AdvancedTCA was to meet the requirements of the next generation of “carrier grade” wired and wireless networking and telecommunications equipment such as media gateways, video transcoders and IPTV. As a result, AdvancedTCA was created to deliver massive processing and bandwidth with high availability and built-in redundancy.
For many applications, AdvancedTCA may be overkill and the final solution is usually quite large. For those that prefer AdvancedTCA’s features but don’t want to invest in unnecessary functions, and are looking for a smaller footprint, MicroTCA is a natural choice. For example, a physics application demands more computational capacity as opposed to a wireless base station application needing a feature set of redundancy and a high throughput rate. With communication bandwidth capabilities in the range of 40 Gbit/s to over 1 Tbit/s, MicroTCA has more than enough bandwidth for most demanding applications.
Starting with a very small two-blade chassis and scaling up to a maximum twelve-blade solution, 2U MicroTCA Processor blades (PrAMCs) can be networked together to deliver a tremendous amount of computing resources, particularly when each could be designed with the latest multicore processors to further increase computing power. Additional system components include power modules, cooling units and AMCs for everything from mass storage to high-end graphic cards (Figure 3).
1U chassis with power supply, MCH and three AMC processor cards.
Appropriate product applications for the MicroTCA architecture include wireless base stations, Wi-Fi/WiMAX radios, optical networks and media servers, to name a few. MicroTCA also delivers the high reliability inherent in AdvancedTCA with availability up to five nines (0.999999). As with AdvancedTCA, redundancy and cooling configurations can be scaled for full, partial or no redundancy depending on the application’s requirements.
Making the Move to MicroTCA
Although VME and CompactPCI are still viable for many applications, these architectures are struggling to meet the demanding bandwidth requirements of today’s increasingly communication-centric industrial and military applications. As a result, many VME and CompactPCI users, including the more recent CompactPCi Serial users, are looking for that next generation platform that can deliver on both counts. MicroTCA has the added benefit of further decreasing the size of the final solution, with its 2U cards being smaller than VME and CompactPCI’s 3U and 6U offerings.
There are a lot of people who have been using VME and CompactPCI for a long time, pushing it along, keeping it going, and now they face a decision of going to a new architecture, and MicroTCA would be a good option because of its size and increased performance. Price considerations in rolling out a new technology take into account how much more throughput and flexibility there is with MicroTCA.
To facilitate the move to MicroTCA, companies such as Embedded Planet are going one step further to offer integrated solutions to help reduce the complexity, improve time-to-market, and reduce risk to OEM partners by delivering an application-specific solution that meets the customer’s exact needs.
Such “application ready” solutions drastically reduce integration time and costs and eliminate the need for customers to work with multiple vendors and integrate the components into a complete system themselves. MicroTCA compared to AdvancedTCA comes down to being cost-efficient in achieving a system performance requirement.
Customers may be used to dealing with multiple vendors, particularly with VME, Compact PCI and AdvancedTCA. But in this economy with few resources, less time, and the need to get to market quickly, OEMs are searching for technology experts to help them reduce costs and improve time-to-market.
In December 2010, Embedded Planet moved from simply producing off-the-shelf PrAMC boards for AdvancedTCA and MicroTCA to delivering complete solutions ready to run out of the box for embedded applications. The modular embedded computing marketplace, including MicroTCA, can be difficult to navigate, and our goal is to simplify that for the customer. Embedded Planet is partnering with other leading companies in the MicroTCA ecosystem space, including Concurrent Technologies, N.A.T. for Network I/O modules and carrier hubs, and MicroBlade for chassis, backplanes and power modules.
With an integrated solution, the customer can focus on higher levels of activity that bring them more value. This provides savings in terms of direct cost, savings in indirect costs and a reduction in risk factors.