Isn't MicroTCA enterprising?

The enterprise market is showing itself to be a fitting one for MicroTCA.

From its inception, the MicroTCA standard was envisioned to span many market spaces and stimulate new classes of applications. To achieve these goals, MicroTCA vendors have focused on several areas in the specification, such as packaging and modularity, giving particular attention to optimizing MicroTCA systems to lower costs. As a result of this intense focus and right in line with PICMG’s original vision, the industry’s first design win using MicroTCA technology was by an electronic transaction solutions provider. The company plans to use a MicroTCA solution to transport secure financial transactions globally – an application well beyond the target markets initially considered for the new standard.

MicroTCA technology is now poised to break into a wide range of applications, including IP-PBX, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) gateways, network Point of Sale (POS), industrial automation, access routers, WiMAX base stations, remote radiology, and patient monitoring. Because of its modular configuration and the leverage derived from being adjacent to the very successful AdvancedTCA architecture, MicroTCA technology is proving to be a viable solution for a number of these enterprise applications.

However, the expansion of the MicroTCA standard into the enterprise market has not been free from challenges. The unique needs of this sector, including packaging, environmental issues, ease of use, and cost, are significantly different from the telecom and defense markets. To better address these needs, a few MicroTCA vendors have accelerated their understanding of the enterprise market and have made dramatic changes in the manufacturing and marketing of their products – finding ways to deliver affordable systems that are specifically optimized and uniquely designed for the enterprise market.

Enterprise applications

One of the most likely enterprise appli-cations for MicroTCA technology is referred to as a Multi-Service Business Gateway (MSBG). This is a single box that consolidates functionality currently delivered in multiple boxes from a variety of vendors. Using AdvancedMC modules, a MicroTCA-based MSBG incorporates combinations of standard enterprise func-tions such as IP-PBX telephony, service router, firewall, and anti-threat devices for a complete integrated solution.

Streamlining all these functions into a single MicroTCA system improves cost, interoperability, and available space con-cerns, and also provides the user with a single point of contact for support. By contrast, when vendors combine these functions using proprietary modular systems, it puts the user at a disadvantage with single sourcing and vendor lock-in.

MicroTCA products are based on open stan-dards and already offer a wide ecosystem of modules, with strong competition in place to lower prices over time. What’s more, MicroTCA gives end users the flexibility to plug in new AdvancedMC modules for additional applications and/or for scaling to bigger implementations.

For enterprises that want to upgrade part of their existing telephony solution, it is possible to deliver a subset of MSBG functionality with MicroTCA technology. The basis of a session border controller or an IP-PBX could be a small number of AdvancedMC modules fitted into a suit-able enclosure. Some OEMs are already working with MicroTCA products to construct IP-PBX telephony services. This type of system typically includes modules that are readily available in AdvancedMC format such as Intel x86 processing with either on-board or separate storage and the various interface modules for telephony based services.

As mentioned in the introduction to this article, the first enterprise design win for MicroTCA technology was for secure financial services transactions. Hypercom Corporation (http://www.hypercom.com) is using a MicroTCA-based system to de-encrypt, authorize, and store POS transactions globally. MicroTCA technology offers high reliability, high availability, long life cycles, and the flexibility to plug in extra modules to make more connections, making it a natural fit for this application.

Another financial services application with a great deal of potential for MicroTCA technology is the trading workstations for stock dealers. Users of these workstations require instant availability to telephony and data services, so MicroTCA’s inherent high availability comes into play here. Another strength is that MicroTCA is easily upgradeable. In addition, it is small, and its modular enclosures can easily become part of a desktop environment.

Packaging

The first generation of MicroTCA products was designed for telecommunicationsor military applications and packaged accordingly. However, recent product develop-ments and changes in design philosophy have allowed vendors to repackage the same AdvancedMCs in a way that is much better suited for enterprise applications.

Unlike central office telecom systems that are usually housed in racks in communication equipment rooms, enterprise equipment is likely to be in a public office space and located near employees where aesthetics are more important. The robust metal packaging of early MicroTCA designs required a substantial amount of assembly time, and so a whole new way to produce MicroTCA systems in an attractive package that could be rapidly assembled at a low cost was required.

To address this need, the Embedded Computing business of Emerson Network Power recently announced the Centellis 500, a MicroTCA platform that is manufactured using injection-molded plastic (Figure 1). To minimize tooling costs both the top and bottom of the plastic chassis use the same molding. For high-volume applications it is easy to customize the colors and logos for a consistent look and feel. It is also possible to produce custom moldings for high volume applications. These moldings can be optimized with specific numbers of expansion slots, and this is relatively easy due to the modular nature of MicroTCA.

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Figure 1

Environmental effects

In an enterprise environment, equipment is often located close to people, which can impose rigorous noise, thermal, and power restrictions that differ significantly from a central office implementation (as shown in Table 1). Perhaps the greatest technical challenge for designers of MicroTCA systems that will be deployed in the enterprise is to find the right balance between noise (fans) and heat (reliability) while retaining a pleasing design.

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Figure 3

Construction of MicroTCA systems using postcard-sized AdvancedMC buildingblocks provides significant combination and placement flexibility to help with these challenges. The high degree of internal thermal status information available within a MicroTCA-based system enables either a simple autonomous or a fully managed system-level cooling strategy to be implemented, depending on the requirements. Further, each AdvancedMC module contains a standard safety mechanism that shuts off the powerif an over-temperature limit is reached, offering a distinct advantage over proprietaryslot systems.

Ease of use

IT staff who support enterprise equipment expect it to work "out of the box" and be easily configurable using a Graphic User Interface (GUI) or Web browser. Once configured and running, enterprise devices must have simple troubleshooting aids and provide remote diagnostic and management capability.

Having been derived from AdvancedTCA, which by requirement is highly configurable, MicroTCA has the right technology and connectivity but not necessarily the correct user interface to set up and control the options easily. There is scope for additional value to aid enterprise users to enable/disable features, check for alarms, obtain serial numbers, and perform other management functions. Emerson Network Power, for example, supplies its SpiderWareM3 platform management software (Figure 2) to monitor, manage, and maintain the elements such as AdvancedMC modules and power and cooling modules in MicroTCA chassis.

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Figure 2

Once deployed, enterprise-level MicroTCA management software should offer remote management in a simple GUI format that can show an intuitive view of all of the systems in an environment, including descriptions and outstanding alarms. With a single click, operators should be able to clear alarms, reset sensor thresholds, and view memory usage, disk space, or CPU utilization on every blade in the system.

Injecting cost savings into the mix

The MicroTCA standard was designed to be portable to multiple markets, with low start-up costs as a particular goal. The intent was to craft the standard in such a way that it could compete favorably in Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) comparisons with proprietary designs. Having an acceptably low purchase cost is just one TCO element. Other factorsto consider are the product life cycle, ease of repair, and maintenance.

What contributes to decreasing costs? In the case of the Centellis 500, Emerson found significant cost savings by moving to a plastic enclosure. A typical MicroTCA metal chassis, for example, includes numerous screws and many metal components that are difficult and time consuming to assemble. That’s acceptable for the telco market, as these metal boxes are carefully engineered, robust, and rack mountable. Injection-plastic boxes, on the other hand, with identical top and bottom pieces and indents in the molding for the card cage, backplane, and fan assembly, have a design goal of less than 10 minutes assembly time.

There are additional opportunities for cost reduction in the enterprise market. For example, in the trade-off for high availability (redundant components) versus cost, enterprise vendors may opt for lower cost. This means that enclosures and systems can be optimized without redundant features inside each box. Instead, redundancy can be provided at the box level. In this non-redundant architecture, hot swap capability for elements like fans and power modules may not be necessary, lowering the box-level cost but at the same time reducing the system-level availability measured in numbers of nines. Finally, enterprise systems are manufactured in high volume, which offers many more opportunities to reduce component and production costs.

Summary

The MicroTCA standard is rapidly gaining traction and is beginning to expand into the enterprise market. Innovations such as the injection-plastic molded construction of Emerson’s Centellis 500 are a great example of how MicroTCA system vendors need to change their design models to address the unique needs of the enterprise market. With the right design parameters in place for packaging, environmental effects, ease of use, and cost, MicroTCA vendors will find that they have a wide range of excellent market opportunities before them.

Nigel Forrester is a Marketing Manager with the Embedded Computing business of Emerson Network Power (formerly Motorola Embedded Communications Computing) with a focus on MicroTCA system products and AdvancedMC modules. He has spent the last six years working on Motorola’s successful embedded communications computing product line of building blocks and communications servers for next generation networks. Nigel’s entire 20-plus year career has been within the electronics industry sector. As a systems engineer he has focused on using embedded computing and board level products for many diverse applications including automotive testing systems and medical instrumentation. He has a B.Sc. (Hons.) in Computer Science and Statistics from Reading University.