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AdvancedTCA seeks traction in grim telecom market

Posted: 28 Jan 2003 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:interface architecture? Bus & Board 2003 Conference? PICMG? Advanced Telecom Computing Architecture specification? CompactPCI?

Even as the beleaguered telecom industry travels to a new architecture, concern grows that some struggling giants, teetering on the brink of extinction, will never survive the journey.

Battling a continuing economic slump, board vendors at the Bus & Board 2003 Conference gamely launched a new breed of products in hopes of breathing life into the moribund market.

Still, as 11 companies rolled out boards, chassis, switches and connectors complying with PICMG's new Advanced Telecom Computing Architecture (AdvancedTCA) specification, questions flew about whether some of telecom's biggest players can afford the move to the new architecture. The industry is now mired, most agree, in one of the worst depressions in its history, with more than $2 trillion in U.S. market value already wiped out.

Knowing that, executives at the conference crossed their fingers and released their products, capping an intense 13-month effort to bring AdvancedTCA technology to life. Their hopes are that the economy will pick up and that telecom companies will begin incorporating the new boards and chassis into their next-generation equipment.

"Hopefully, the industry can get over the fear and hesitation and start building again," said Justin Moll, marketing manager for Bustronic Corp., in a comment typical of suppliers' expectations. "If they do, we expect it to translate into the use of AdvancedTCA."

Indeed, analysts described the economy as the unknown ingredient. "AdvancedTCA is a valid architecture and a specification that was badly needed, but the economy could really slow it down," said Eric Gullicksen, project director for the embedded-development group at Venture Development Corp. "Its success will depend on when we come out of this downturn."

If AdvancedTCA stumbles, it won't be for lack of effort. The spec, adopted by the PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group (PICMG) late last year, could be the biggest project ever undertaken by the embedded supplier market. More than 100 companies helped create the spec, logging 11,000 hours of teleconferences in a single year, PICMG executives said.

Engineers call AdvancedTCA a logical next step up from CompactPCI, an architecture largely used in telecom. The new spec, Revision 1.0 of PICMG 3.0, essentially draws an architecture in which blades - highly integrated single-board computers - communicate via a switch fabric rather than the shared bus of earlier architectures.

AdvancedTCA also gives equipment builders a standardized form factor and platform, enabling them to jettison numerous proprietary designs. Until now, some big OEMs reportedly kept as many as 250 different proprietary form factors in-house, causing complexity and confusion.

"Standardized platforms make sense," said Charles Byers, Bell Labs fellow and consulting member of the technical staff at Lucent Technologies. "Instead of hundreds and hundreds of different boxes, we're seeing the advantages of just a few."

Joe Pavlat, the president of PICMG, said, "Five years from now, AdvancedTCA will be ticking along as a $20 billion-a-year market. And those numbers are fairly conservative."

A lot to like

Telecom equipment makers say they like a lot about AdvancedTCA, including the technology's ability to handle up to 2.5Tbps in a single shelf. Equipment makers also like the technology's distributed 48V redundant power, its system management and its cooling capabilities. Cooling is critical, they say, because AdvancedTCA must dissipate 200W of power per board.

To Byers and other engineers, AdvancedTCA is simply the next step in the evolution of reliable telecom. "When people call 911, they don't want to deal with technical glitches," Byers said. "If they can't get through because you've specified less-than-reliable equipment, then you've really got a big problem."

Still, even superior technology can't ensure booming business, and some fear AdvancedTCA will not help the companies most damaged in the slump.

Bottom lines have been racked at major vendors like Nortel Networks, Lucent, Cisco Systems, and Alcatel. "Only two or three equipment providers will remain [at recession's end]," predicted a veteran observer.

Some analysts contend that PICMG blundered badly when it chose to target the technology exclusively at telecom.

"When they first started thinking about AdvancedTCA, telecom was healthy," said Gullicksen of Venture Development. "But it turns out they made a big mistake by calling it a telecom architecture, because that will slow down its penetration into other markets." In 2002, Gullicksen said, about 97 percent of blades went into communications, but he expects non-telecom users to jump from 3 percent to 8 percent in 2003 and higher still in 2004.

Critics of AdvancedTCA argue that cash-strapped telecom equipment makers have neither the funds nor the engineering resources to adopt a new technology. "They're going to squeeze the last penny out of their existing gear," said Ray Alderman, executive director of VMEBus International Trade Association. "That tells me that AdvancedTCA is not going very far, very fast."

Service providers and telecom equipment makers, struggling to survive, can't afford new technologies until they find a viable model for success, he argued. Alderman contends that AdvancedTCA, and its lower-power brethren, CompactTCA, aren't the answer. "CompactTCA is a dog," Alderman said. "And AdvancedTCA is a dog with fleas."

Planning for tomorrow's demand

Even if telecom does not rebound in 2003 or 2004, as many predict, vendors argue that now is still the time to develop new technologies. "It will probably be two years before the market sees a real increase in demand," said Benjamin Sharfi, president and CEO of General Micro Systems. "But the engineering research and development has to take place during those two years. You can't wait until the slump is over to start your development."

Moreover, many suppliers say the slump has changed telecom's business dynamics. With almost half a million layoffs, many companies have so pared in-house engineering they now must look to merchant boards.

"We see the telecom downturn as an opportunity for architectures like AdvancedTCA," said Roland Chochoiek, corporate director of marketing at board supplier Force Computers GmbH. "A lot of the engineering capability in those companies is gone now, but the technology still needs to be built."

For that reason and others, telecom equipment makers like Lucent are sticking with AdvancedTCA. "The telecom bust is part of a normal cyclic business condition," said Lucent's Byers. "Busts are followed by booms, and just about the time AdvancedTCA is ready for prime time, we expect the boom to be in full swing."

- Charles J. Murray

EE Times

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