xTCA markets and specs on the far side of the Maya calendar

The xTCA family of specifications is looking to extend its reach beyond telecommunications markets in 2013.

3If you are reading this you have likely made it past December 21, 2012, and the cataclysm of the Maya calendar was either a beneficial misinterpretation, or server rooms and disgruntled mail clerks exist at the end of the world. In either case, embedded COTS technology will still have a use, so it's worth looking at xTCA market projections and activity in the next cycle of the Long Count calendar.

In the base year of 2011, rough estimates of combined merchant and captive markets placed the overall embedded COTS industry value at more than $30 billion, with low single-digit gains projected through 2017. And while xTCA makes up only a fraction of this space, according to VDC Research’s 2012 COTS Systems report, it will remain ahead of the curve amidst an unsure global economy. “[xTCA’s] projected Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) is above 5 percent over the next five years,” says Jonathan Hastings, Analyst at VDC Research. “MicroTCA will likely see the largest growth, with a CAGR of around 10 percent.”

Increasingly, these numbers are being bolstered from industries beyond telecommunications, and the ability to diversify across disparate market segments will likely be a good indicator of xTCA’s success in the future. What follows provides an overview of some of the financial and specification activity in several traditional and emerging xTCA markets.

Communication and networking

As expected, much of xTCA’s sustained success is attributable to the strong foothold it maintains in the communications and networking space. xTCA saw modest single-digit growth in comms and networking in 2012, and VDC’s findings indicate that the explosion of 4G technology will help keep that growth sustained through 2017. Hastings cites performance, integration, and the increased importance of packet processing as catalysts for xTCA communications growth over the next five years, and stated that the “Americas and APAC will likely drive most growth, [and the] EMEA less.”

AdvancedTCA Extensions and HPM.2/3 are some of the new PICMG specifications expected to continue xTCA’s push in the commercial communications market. The recently adopted HPM.2 and HPM.3 specifications are geared toward the standardization of serial LAN-attached xTCA management controllers, which not only provides remote access to multiple serial ports, but also improves the speed of Field Replaceable Unit (FRU) firmware upgrades dramatically (up to 10x over Ethernet). ATCA Extensions is targeted at increasing compute density and capabilities, and introduces double-wide boards as well as enhanced power features, which include AC power and 600 W single-slot boards and 800 W double-slot boards. Also included are new cooling definitions to allow for increased airflow in ATCA shelves. AdvancedTCA Extensions is on track for ratification in early 2013.

Military and aerospace

Outside of its traditional communications comfort zone, xTCA is also beginning to find its legs. One of the key markets in which xTCA is already finding traction and hopes to penetrate further is the military/aerospace vertical. Currently, the mil/aero market consumes more than 8 percent of xTCA’s market share, and with the Department of Defense (DoD) trending heavily toward a Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA) to design in the face of fiscal cliffs, budget cuts, and sequestration, xTCA’s prospects in this sector appear bright.

Because the mil/aero industry is heavily concerned with ruggedization and SWaP, the consideration and selection of an xTCA technology (AdvancedTCA versus MicroTCA) varies by application and system requirements. Hastings reported that “Military communications and Command and Control (C2) should drive demand for xTCA,” and for AdvancedTCA this suggests implementation in Ground Control Stations (GCSs), aboard seafaring vessels, or in larger surveillance-oriented aircraft.

MicroTCA’s smaller size and more rugged design, on the other hand, enable it to be deployed in a variety of smaller, more mobile net-centric warfare applications. Some of these include roles in Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) platforms in unmanned systems, or in tactical systems that conform to the U.S. Army’s Vehicle Integration for C4ISR/EW Interoperability (VICTORY) initiative (Figure 1). Based off of MOSA interconnect and interoperability requirements and focused on reducing SWaP-C, VICTORY provides an open, data bus-centric design architecture with high-speed serial interfaces for intra-vehicle ground combat systems.

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Figure 1: MicroTCA is a prime candidate for use as in the U.S. Armyճ VICTORY architecture, which leverages high-speed serial interfaces for C4ISR/EW applications in ground combat vehicles such as the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle. Photo courtesy www.army.mil.

At the 2012 AdvancedTCA Summit in Santa Clara, CA this past September, Mark Leibowitz and Mike Borthwick, Chief Systems Architect and Chief Mechanical Engineer of BAE Systems, respectively, keynoted on the applicability of MicroTCA plat-forms for VICTORY systems. The presentation reviewed both hardened conduction-cooled MicroTCA.3 platforms and hybrid air and conduction cooled variants of the still-active MicroTCA.2 specification (scheduled for adoption in early 2013), and demonstrated the systems’ ability to successfully fulfill the data bus-oriented design, shareable components and serv-ices, and backward compatibility/future upgrade path require-ments of the VICTORY initiative – and all with technical and cost advantages over VPX. A copy of their presentation can be viewed at
http://opsy.st/BAEKeynote2012.

Test and measurement

A third area, and another that xTCA is poised to become increasingly competitive in, is Test and Measurement (T&M). Although the standard is unaffiliated with the AdvancedTCA specification’s governing body, PICMG, VDC sees xTCA gaining interest in T&M through the emergence of AdvancedTCA Extensions for Instrumentation and Test (AXIe). Hastings commented that
“VDC Research Group believes [AXIe] will likely gain growth in Test and Measurement,” and that “The success of this AXIe standard will depend on how readily it meets the requirements of ease of use, low power, and low cost, which VDC sees as particularly critical in the Test and Measurement market.”

Though relatively new (founded in 2009 with the first specifications being released in mid 2010), the AXIe consortium and standard have combined proven instrumentation and testing standards, such as PXI, with the high performance provided by AdvancedTCA. As such, the base AXIe specification includes many of AdvancedTCA’s inherent features, such as a similar platform management architecture and many other identical requirements pertaining to mechanical, thermal, power distribution, and data transport aspects of the PICMG 3.0 specification. Aside from that, AXIe lacks the redundancy, Rear Transition Modules (RTMs), shelf requirements, and has a maximum of 14 system slots, but includes a 12 MLVDS trigger bus and modified timing interface, among other extensions. Minimal market research on the AXIe standard is available to-date, but should expand with time.

Emerging markets

VDC identified industrial and medical applications as further emerging markets for xTCA, but, extending from test and measurement, another intriguing opportunity for the PICMG technologies lies in high-energy particle physics. CompactPCI, AdvancedTCA, & MicroTCA Systems recently spoke with Markus Joos, both a CERN engineer and active member of PICMG’s xTCA for Physics working group, and he explained that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), its Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detectors, and surrounding projects are scheduled for upgrade in either the 2017-8 or 2022 time frames, and that xTCA is being seriously considered in that process (Figure 2). Joos and his colleagues in the high-energy physics community have been evaluating the use of both AdvancedTCA and MicroTCA for Data Acquisition (DAQ) within CERN, and are attracted by the sheer speed and processing power that the technologies enable in digesting mind-bending amounts of data. This is exciting stuff in general and for PICMG and xTCA in particular, especially when considering that CERN and the programs it runs, such as the A Toroidal LHC Apparatus (ATLAS) experiment, are moreso a collection of individual scientists than a single unified organization – much in the way Microsoft and IBM proliferated throughout society by capturing the enterprise, the opportunity to pervade the scientific community is a very real one should xTCA take hold at CERN. We expect to hear more from Geneva in the spring.

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Figure 2: xTCA technology is being reviewed for use in Data Acquisition (DAQ) at CERN. Cryo-magnets used in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which hosts the ATLAS and other experiments, are pictured here. Photo courtesy: ATLAS Experiment 2012 CERN.

For more xTCA market intelligence and strategy information, contact VDC Research Analyst Jonathan Hastings at jhastings@vdcresearch.com.

For more information on PICMG specification activity, visit www.picmg.org. Contact Brandon at blewis@opensystemsmedia.com.