As ATCA cools, MicroTCA picks up steam

-June 25, 2007

Chicago -- Developers of boards and subsystems for the Advanced Telecom Computing Architecture, who have waited year after year for a skyrocketing telecom equipment market, were turning their attention toward MicroTCA at last week's NxtComm show here. Full-sized ATCA may end up being a highly customized boutique business, while high-volume manufacturing moves to the smaller MicroTCA standard.

ATCA expectations have cooled the past couple of years. One problem, developers say, is the handful of large OEMs specializing in core central-office architectures see little impetus for moving to open backplanes. At the same time, more aggregation and access functions at the edge are moving from rack-mounted chassis to tabletop systems using MicroTCA.

There was no single "aha" moment when full-sized ATCA interest cooled, said Bill Bryant, director of marketing at Dialogic Inc. Rather, board-level developers of voice-over-Internet Protocol gateways and 10-Gbit line cards kept waiting for a mad scramble to the ATCA interface.

"It's a succession of little things, like Nokia Siemens Networks backing off on ATCA after merging their businesses," Bryant said. "We see a lot of demand for MicroTCA, but full ATCA is not something everyone clamors for right now."

However, Kai Sjoblom, a technology manager at Nokia Siemens Networks (Espoo, Finland) said in an email that Nokia Siemens Networks "still plans to ship systems based on ATCA." The company "continues to keep ATCA as a strong part in its hardware platform offering and the merger has not caused this basic plan to change," said Sjoblom who is also a member of the PICMG group that defines ATCA.

Performance Technologies Inc. is taking a tough position. Edward Bizari, vice president of marketing at Performance, said his company will treat ATCA as a custom business, licensing intellectual property for full-sized ATCA board designs and doing one-off development projects for customers.

"Part of the problem was the provision of too many backplane options by PICMG [PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group]. There are fewer options for MicroTCA, and that makes it easier to develop projects that are certain to interoperate," Bizari said.

What makes the hesitation on full-sized ATCA surprising is that, outside the core backbone functions, OEMs are turning rapidly to open-source tools and open-interface hardware that commoditizes virtually every function below the application layer. GoAhead Software Inc. launched its first SAFfire software based on the Service Availability Forum's Application Interface Specification.

GoAhead chief executive Jim Ewel said that OEMs now are willing to consider three layers of open standards--common physical hardware, common carrier-grade Linux OS kernels and common service-creation tools like SAFfire.

Performance Technologies used NxtComm to spotlight the NexusWare carrier-grade Linux development environment, rather than the board-level hardware products for which the company is known. Bizari said that open software fits the model most telecom OEMs have followed since the 2001 crash.

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