Growing the AdvancedTCA ecosystem

As more powerful CPUs come on the scene, the AdvancedTCA ecosystem is thriving.

AdvancedTCA is expanding its reach to include a new range of networking platforms and non-telecom related applications.

The Advanced Telecommunications Computing Architecture (AdvancedTCA) hardware specification has a rich history with many chapters. Since the first specification in 2002 for the baseline, followed by the Ethernet fabric interconnect development in 2003, there has been ongoing fine-tuning by many companies and organizations. As the specification has progressed, the PICMG organization has increased its active member base to more than 300 companies with diverse specialties ranging from hardware, software, mechanicals, and thermal design to high-speed signaling and system management. All have participated in the AdvancedTCA standardization process. In addition, most of these member companies provide products related to AdvancedTCA as well as products supporting the complementary open standard hardware specifications of Advanced Mezzanine Cards (AMCs) and Micro Telecommunications Computing Architecture (MicroTCA).

Throughout the process, PICMG members identified gaps in the standards that were not well defined or were too vague, as specified in the requirements from the users, namely the telecom equipment manufacturers. To close these gaps, other technical work needed to be done, and standard organizations such as the SCOPE Alliance were created to define a common profile for standard hardware, software components, and systems.

Adding a further wrinkle to the development process, having standards-based hardware components did not automatically guarantee seamless integration into a multivendor environment. The Communications Platforms Trade Association (CP-TA) took on the task of creating a common methodology for hardware component testing and verification during the product design cycle and the actual integration testing.

Most vendors in the xTCA (AdvancedTCA and MicroTCA) ecosystem have been shipping products to telecom equipment manufacturers for at least the past five years. Telecom equipment manufacturers have either migrated a current proprietary platform to AdvancedTCA or have created “green field” platforms and deployments for specific network elements.

Today most xTCA vendors in the ecosystem are shipping their fifth- or sixth-generation products. AdvancedTCA as an evolving standard offers a clear evolution path that can adjust and extend to the new technologies that are becoming available.

During the past 10 years, the telecom industry has experienced a rollercoaster financial environment and, as an outcome, the equipment manufacturer market has reshaped itself. Mergers, vendor consolidations, and Chapter 11 filings were all the rage in the telecom industry news and, as a snowball effect, the COTS components and xTCA vendor market has also seen its share of consolidation activities.

However, because it is standards based, AdvancedTCA continues to be fully viable as a business and technology solution for the industry, with the network equipment provider community very supportive of AdvancedTCA and COTS. This opens new opportunities for telecom equipment manufacturers to differentiate themselves and focus on the application layer, and it also means adjusting internal engineering resources away from hardware-centricity and toward software-centricity.

AdvancedTCA as a hardware platform standard maintains the possibility to implement and integrate current and future technology to evolve the architecture. As an active participant in the ecosystem, Kontron is currently shipping its fourth-generation AdvancedTCA products (Figure 1). Scalable for 1 to 10 GbE backplane and switching implementations, these solutions include single- and multicore components and platforms.

Figure 1: Kontron AT8050

While the early adopters of AdvancedTCA created their initial platforms around 1 GbE, 10 GbE AdvancedTCA platforms experience greater demand today because more powerful CPUs and network processors have arrived.

A similar evolution took place for MicroTCA. Those companies in the forefront of creating processor-based AMC modules for AdvancedTCA paved the way for a broad range of applications to realize the benefits of a smaller footprint with architecture similar to AdvancedTCA. Kontron, for example, realized when it worked with its customers that the fully standardized version of MicroTCA did not meet the price target of customer requirements. The Kontron approach provides low-scale, 1 GbE and non-redundant platform solutions, all the way up to a full-scale, 10 GbE, fully redundant MicroTCA platforms, allowing customers to “pay only for what they really need.” The market also increased its demand for standard variants in MicroTCA for applications outside of telecom.

Standards take hold

Today the large xTCA ecosystem encompasses component providers, blade vendors, Carrier Grade operating system vendors, and system integrators. More recently, the ecosystem has grown to include software vendors that offer platform management and middleware solutions.

Standards-based hardware leaves integrators free to choose the best performing general-purpose components in the platform. What’s more, developers gain the ability to use specialty AdvancedTCA blades and AMC modules. Depending on the network application, multiple component elements of the AdvancedTCA or MicroTCA platform can be sourced from a variety of vendors, including SS7 for signaling, ATM, DSP, network processing, and WiMAX or WiFi building blocks.

Today, xTCA is adopted primarily in the wireless network infrastructure as the platform for HLR/HSS and subscriber data management, Base Station Controller, LTE, IMS, WiFi and WiMAX, and content delivery systems. However, xTCA can also address other core, access, and customer premises applications.

With the evolution in GbE technology and the future availability of new silicon, the AdvancedTCA specification is implementing new revisions in the PICMG specification to allow board vendors, system providers, and telecom equipment manufacturers to use AdvancedTCA in other telecom networking applications.

The PICMG organization is currently revising the PICMG 3.1 specification and is under development of Revision 2.0 to incorporate 1000BASE-KX and 10GBASE-KR. Today, early adopters in the industry are providing AdvancedTCA platforms and backplanes as 10GBASE-KR “ready.” This implementation into the AdvancedTCA standard provides a higher speed Fabric Interface with 2x4x10 GbE to a total bandwidth of 40 GbE in a redundant configuration per blade and creates a new market and application opportunities for xTCA.

IEEE is currently finalizing the 802.3ba specification, a data link layer of standards for Ethernet LAN and WAN applications, which has the objective of supporting speeds faster than 10 gigabits per second (Gbps). The standard should support 40 Gbps and 100 Gbps transfer rates, and IEEE is projected to have the specification implemented into xTCA by the beginning of 2011.

The future challenge to implement this new technology into xTCA is backward compatibility and interoperability with “legacy” xTCA platforms.

Driving the volume for xTCA

More significant is that the new gigabit specifications provide the framework for additional types of network elements and application areas. As switch silicon vendors finalize their roadmaps according to the standardization roadmap, it is expected that a series of third-generation AdvancedTCA products will hit the market in 2011 and 2012 intended for core and edge network elements such as for Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH) and Gigabit Passive Optical Network (GPON) networks.

Future 40 GbE-designed AdvancedTCA platforms – with a total platform capacity of 574 Gbps with 4x 10GBASE-KR – could be used for Optical Line Terminals (OLT) or point-to-multipoint GPON network infrastructures, optimized for the delivery of video services, quality voice, and high-speed Internet access. GPON enables one single-feeding fiber from the provider's Central Office to deliver data via passive splitters to multiple homes and small businesses. Typically, downstream capacity is 2.488 Gbps, and upstream capacity is 1.244 Gbps, shared among users and encrypted for secure user data.

As multicore silicon and virtualization technologies gain traction, it will be necessary to support a higher bandwidth fabric interface to leverage these improvements. It will also change the way AMC modules can be implemented in AMC carrier boards for AdvancedTCA.

AMC slots on an AdvancedTCA carrier board have been limited to 1 GbE on a 1-to-10 GbE fabric interface-enabled AdvancedfTCA carrier board. There are multicore AMCs available in the market today for various packet and security processing functions, including forwarding, load balancing, traffic management, and IPSec, which support 10 GbE ports on the AMC Fat Pipe connector.

Future backplanes and AdvancedTCA carrier blades that will support 10GBASE-KR will enable designers to populate four AMCs with 10 GbE support. It will help expand the eco-system and the possibility to use other vendor specialty AMC modules that also support 10GbE on the same ATCA carrier board. And again, it opens a new application area for the aforementioned core and edge network elements.

Multicore silicon vendors will continue to introduce new and more powerful processors – from general-purpose processors to dedicated network processors with multiple 10 GbE support. These processor advancements will oblige next-generation AdvancedTCA blades to support at least 10GBASE-KR in order to leverage this new architecture without bandwidth limitations.

Another aspect of this improvement entails iSCSI over 10 GbE, opening up more doors for AdvancedTCA storage blade vendors with potentially higher performing read and write over 4x 10 GbE per blade.

These multicore and storage advances will enable the AdvancedTCA market to grow into new application areas. More content in the network will need to be delivered, filtered, transcoded, inserted, and stored in the network. AdvancedTCA must keep up with this demand to remain the best alternative to more costly, proprietary hardware architectures.

Kontron and other xTCA ecosystem members are creating third-generation platforms to meet the bandwidth, processing, and storage challenges. The availability of switch fabric silicon from switch vendors to support this new AdvancedTCA direction will be key for new products launched beyond 2011.

Beyond standard telecom application areas

Data centers today are starting to deploy AdvancedTCA platforms as their functionality could be applicable in that market segment. Military communications and cloud computing equipment vendors are also taking advantage of the architecture.

While the original intention was to deploy AdvancedTCA in the Central Office environment with redundant -48 V, redundant shelf manager cards, and NEBS level 3 compliance, AdvancedTCA vendors have recently started to create platforms and blades that leverage the AdvancedTCA feature set for the data center and enterprise environments, but specifically with non-NEBS specifications.

PICMG is currently working on the ATCA Extension draft specification to describe AdvancedTCA form factor use outside the telecom world. It will be based on the initial AdvancedTCA architecture from the shelf management and backplane perspective. It will extend its usage for compute-intensive applications by implementing AdvancedTCA blades with a 12HP, double-wide blade approach.


Since its inception in 2002, AdvancedTCA continues to evolve and expand. The advent of 40 GbE technologies will translate into a whole host of new design opportunities, which will mean more AdvancedTCA processor, switch, carrier, and integrated platform products on the market for some time to come. Just in the next three years, market research firm IDC expects the xTCA market – which also includes the MicroTCA form factor – to reach $2.65 billion in 2013 (See Figure 2). As the ecosystem for AdvancedTCA expands, it is certainly obvious that it has plenty of growth potential.

Figure 2: Worldwide xTCA forecast in millions of dollars vs GbE roadmap, 2008-2013, Source IDC. Includes NEP, telecom external, non-telecom.


Sven Freudenfeld is responsible for North American Business Development for the Kontron AG line of AdvancedTCA, AdvancedMC, MicroTCA, and preintegrated OM solutions. Sven possesses more than 15 years of experience with voice, data, and wireless communications, having worked extensively with Nortel Networks in systems engineering, Sanmina-SCI in test engineering, and Deutsche Telekom in network engineering. Sven holds an electrical engineering degree from Germany. He is VP of CP-TA and Chair of the CP-TA marketing workgroup focusing on the interoperability of COTS standard building blocks.