MicroTCA extends to telecom and beyond

MicroTCA has served modern telecom apps well, and now the form factor is entering newer territory – the defense domain – and finding success therein.

A light infantry team makes its way into enemy territory searching for a deep insertion path. Advancing at night down a pitted, rocky, and rugged desert trail, the team relies on a rugged all-terrain unmanned six-wheel drive Multifunction Utility/Logistics Equipment (MULE) vehicle for forward sweep, cover, threat, and explosive detection. Captain Clayton “Clay” Powers quickly downloads the real-time reconnaissance, terrain mapping, artillery, and battle scenarios onto his network-centric battle command system, preparing for combat. Ahead of the MULE was a fine wire line crossing the path, masked by a thin layer of dust worthy of the best wine cellars in the Loire … Is this an introduction to the latest Tom Clancy best seller? No, but it could be a sneak peek into one of many future MicroTCA applications.

Since being ratified as a standard in mid 2006, MicroTCA has been heavily promoted as suitable for a wide range of telecom applications. That's hardly surprising since the fundamental AdvancedMC building block was conceived as a hot-swappable mezzanine to add functionality to AdvancedTCA systems that are widely used by many network equipment providers.

In addition, MicroTCA was conceived to be suitable for other sectors such as the Defense, Aerospace, and Government (DAG) markets, as well as the medical and industrial automation segments. Clearly, the benefits of faster time to market and lower total cost of ownership are equally relevant to any industry. As a direct result, we are now seeing other markets joining the MicroTCA bandwagon by leveraging more open standard, off-the-shelf components. Recent multi-market research by analyst firm Venture Development Corporation (VDC) suggests that the non-telecommunications share of the MicroTCA market may be between 40 percent and 80 percent over the next three years. Why is this?

A huge market

For starters, it is a huge market. The four traditional Armed Services and the Coast Guard are now bolstered by the covert agencies, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and Homeland Security. These organizations have one significant need in common - the need for rapid exchange of intelligence (voice, video, telemetry, and other data) via common (or software translatable) formats and protocols, between cooperating agency elements.

Which introduces the second point: interoperability. There is an imminent need to interconnect (all) agencies on a peer-to-peer basis while connecting the battlefield commanders with the war fighter in real time. Meeting this goal will enable direct, real-time communication between soldiers in the trenches and the command center, creating a strategic advantage. In the past, a reconnaissance scout may have been equipped with a pair of decent binoculars, maps, radio, and a lot of dirt on his shirt. Now, he is a mobile access point with helmet-mounted multimedia observation tools and a lot of downloaded look-ahead data that keeps him from harm's way. For example, the surveillance tools can allow him to observe without putting his head around the corner. The ability to receive actionable information at the functional point of operation is the crux of this effort. It looks and sounds like a network, and it is. This is the communication backbone that translates beyond conventional telecommunications, extending all the way to the soldier in the battlefield.

And to the third point: It's all about COTS communications. Using existing and state-of-the-art communications technology such as VoIP and WiMAX makes sense when the technology meets good enough requirements. So what are some of these applications? Let's take a look at a few.

The United States Army's vision to transform into the Number One network-centric battlefield organization is part of its Future Combat Systems (FCS) program. The FCS program incorporates many elements, including the Joint Tactical Radio System Ground Mobile Radio. These software programmable radios are designed to provide reliable, multi-channel voice, data, imagery, and video communications for mobile military users. Using the best of COTS components (Figure 1) housed in military grade enclosures (Figure 2) enables easier upgrade capability and reduces costs compared to completely proprietary systems. MicroTCA is cost effective and flexible enough to fit into numerous applications within this type of sector.

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Figure 1
(Click graphic to zoom by 1.6x)

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Figure 2

The cornerstone

Having high-quality, secure voice communication is the cornerstone of the network-centric battlefield; however, we now expect images and video to provide a complete picture. This capability helps fill in any gaps that might be lost through verbal-only communication, especially in a confusing and constantly changing battlefield environment. There are easy parallels between the architecture of the equipment that is used to enable commercial services such as IPTV, although the environment and scalability rules for the sectors are totally different. Commercial operations need long-term reliability, often without any maintenance for months and sometimes years, with hot-swappable upgrade capability. These systems are deliberately scalable with high bandwidth to accommodate future technology upgrades, designed to support hundreds or even thousands of simultaneous users.

A logical FCS base

For battlefield operation, the underlying technology is the same, but the information is strictly shared on a need-to-know basis between specific field-based personnel and operation commanders. MicroTCA is well suited for this type of application as it's made up of low-cost AdvancedMC modules that scale easily, essentially providing a good mix of price/performance options.

This AdvancedMC module advantage - coupled with the broader rugged use, plus the aforementioned advantages of future technology upgrades, vast ecosystems, and economies - makes MicroTCA a logical base platform for many FCS applications. The end result will be the creation of greater reuse models.

Many-core packet processing benefits

Using wire-speed packet processing for encryption/decryption at the endpoints and as part of secure router and aggregator functions within a network enables secure access to tightly controlled groups of users in an IP environment. Traditionally, this would require separate network and control processors with additional security and pattern-matching coprocessors, but a new breed of many-core packet processing devices has recently entered the market with all this functionality in a single device. A selection of vendors have incorporated these devices into AdvancedMC designs and, when fitted into MicroTCA systems, the vendors can enable applications such as IPsec acceleration and Secure RTP offload so that the core processing elements can be minimized.

Another advantage of these many-core processors is that they are able to run standard Linux distributions for easier and quicker programming - a benefit that makes them suitable for hybrid control and bearer applications on a single module. In real-life situations when equipment needs to be transportable, this is a significant advantage - saving a module slot by using a single hybrid module to provide both a control function and a packet-processing task.

Trends beyond DAG

If the DAG market has started down the road to using COTS components to save costs and time to market, are there any similar trends from other sectors that are also thinking of using MicroTCA? Interestingly, there are many parallels to the commercial aircraft industry, although the relevant standards are different. The environmental and long-life cycle requirements are similar, as is the overall need to develop new products and bring them to market faster with fewer development resources.

The PICMG standards organization has recently created a Rugged MicroTCA Committee targeting commercial and military applications, including ground mobile, shipboard, and aircraft, along with some rugged industrial applications, such as railway signaling and traffic control. Proof points, such as a prototype conduction-cooled MicroTCA ATR enclosure from Hybricon (Figure 3) have demonstrated that MicroTCA is a valid technology for rugged applications; this has prompted investigation and initial engagements by commercial aircraft manufacturers. In the authors' opinion, it is only a matter of time before MicroTCA is in the air.

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Figure 3

However, this does not need to be limited to a DAG discussion. Consider this: Major United States healthcare companies are focusing on early detection or preventive healthcare using the latest advances in diagnostics. Many are looking to decentralize healthcare away from mega hospitals to well-equipped regional (even rural) clinics that can offer a diverse set of diagnostic services in order to get a head start on patient maladies before they become chronic (read: expensive) problems. A startling example of this is the drive to replace the last bastion of traditional film-based diagnostic equipment - mammography. While the replacement of film with digital technology is easily understandable, it is the expectation that this will propel this diagnostic modality into shopping malls that emphasizes technology's impact on cultural activities. How does this relate to MicroTCA? The small size, compute density, high-performance system interconnection, and cost reduction that regional diagnostic equipment demands align with MicroTCA's attributes. In addition, MicroTCA meets the requirements for substantially increased communications capability and can be brought to market more rapidly.

A range of other applications in addition to DAG and medical use alternative standards-based and proprietary equipment. Developers of these applications are starting to evaluate the cost and availability benefits of MicroTCA. A typical example would be for portable wireless test equipment housed in an enclosure with a carry handle for transporting around various test sites. AdvancedMC modules offer a good compromise between real estate and functionality, while the growing ecosystem of providers offers choice for integrators where previously they might have had to design more of the solution themselves. Plus MicroTCA solutions are architected around Ethernet switched fabrics, which works well for the latest IP-based test applications.

The initial problem was how to construct application and environmental-specific equipment using open standards components. What we are now seeing is that having been influenced and guided by the telecommunications companies, many more diverse sectors are looking to leverage the benefits of the MicroTCA ecosystem. Often, these applications include a communications element with an expectation of long life cycles and the need to constantly reduce prices.

During the creation of the MicroTCA specification, considerable thought was given to the ways that it could be used in other markets. Design goals were set for low start-up costs and system scalability and granularity, as well as various potential packaging options. Because of this forward thinking, the progress to date indicates that MicroTCA-based equipment can indeed compete on ownership costs with proprietary optimized designs, which in turn may someday open the door to not only flying planes, but also to guiding the MULE, captain, and his team safely down that pitted, rocky, and rugged desert trail into battle. CS

Nigel Forrester is marketing manager with Emerson Network Power. Prior to that, he was a marketing manager with the Embedded Communications Computing business of Motorola with a focus on MicroTCA system products and AdvancedMC modules. He has spent the last six years working on Motorola's 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, United Kingdom. He can be reached at Nigel.Forrester@emerson.com.

Paul Virgo is director of marketing at Emerson Network Power. Prior to that, he was a director of marketing responsible for Micro TCA and AdvancedMCs for Motorola's Embedded Communications Computing business and has led the market development and launch of these technologies since their inception. Paul brings more than 25 years of embedded architecture experience spanning STD Bus, CompactPCI, VME, and MicroTCA to his current role. He is the author of numerous articles on embedded computers and backplane standards, and has spoken on these subjects at several conferences. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering from Portsmouth University, United Kingdom. He can be reached at Paul.Virgo@emerson.com.

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