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ATCA/Standard Servers

ATCA Finds Its Way

CHICAGO – Supercomm 2005 – Component and computing vendors' efforts to push the Advanced Telecom Computing Architecture (ATCA) were as fevered as ever at this week's Supercomm.

ATCA announcements have accelerated during the past year, with some blade announcements coming around last week (see Server Honchos Flash Blades). And vendors at the show seemed hot to identify themselves with the ATCA juggernaut.

Standards like ATCA -- which defines generic shelves and backplanes for networking equipment -- have been tried before but never took hold. After the downturn, with equipment vendors laying off substantial numbers of engineers, the headstart promised by standard hardware is more attractive.

IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) is proposing some competing ideas with its BladeCenter-T -- which, according to Big Blue, stands a better chance of extending into the enterprise (see IBM Flashes Its Blade). But ATCA has heavy support from chip makers including Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) and embedded-computing specialists such as Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) and RadiSys Corp. (Nasdaq: RSYS). (See Intel Supports IMS, Motorola Preps ATCA Blast, and RadiSys Demos VOIP Server.)

The hope is that other systems houses will follow the examples of Alcatel (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA) and Nortel Networks Ltd. (NYSE/Toronto: NT) in adopting ATCA (see Alcatel Unveils ATCA Gear and Moto Touts ATCA). But most of the big-name, high-margin vendors don't seem targets for ATCA adoption -- not at first, anyway.

"I'm not certain a Cisco or even a Redback are ready to make that leap because of their position in the marketplace, but the traditional telecom vendors are," says John Fryer, Motorola's director of marketing for switched platforms operation. Again, the argument comes down to costs: Wireless vendors, for example, aren't able to charge much more for new services, yet they have to build new infrastructure for them.

A few trends are emerging through the vendor swarm. ATCA is finding its first targets at the edges of the network, because its backplane capacity hasn't caught up to the needs of metro and core boxes.

"In terms of just I/O speed, ATCA can only support up to 3.2-Gbit/s backplane speed. For metro and core applications, you're really talking 6 to 10 Gbit/s," says Mark Donovan, Applied Micro Circuits Corp. (AMCC)'s (Nasdaq: AMCC) product marketing manager for ATCA.

For similar reasons, early ATCA adoption is happening mostly in voice and wireless applications. The 20 to 30 Gbit/s of switching capacity offered by ATCA is "more than enough for these types of applications but isn't going to cut it if you're considering something like a B-RAS [broadband remote access server]," Fryer says. The cost-savings argument also has more sway here: Fryer notes that voice and wireless "are market segments that are highly competitive, and they're under economic pressure."

The key will be to develop switch fabrics that carry 10-Gbit/s line rates, Fryer thinks. The ATCA standard, shepherded by the PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group (PICMG), accommodates several switch fabrics including RapidIO, StarFabric, InfiniBand, and Advanced Switching, but Motorola is putting its bet on Ethernet. That technology already provides the economies of scale that ATCA seeks to create, and therefore makes the most sense to use, Fryer says. "We need to take the fabric that is deployed today, which is Ethernet, and scale that up."

Motorola is working with silicon providers on Ethernet fabrics suitable for ATCA and expects silicon to emerge during "the next 12 to 18 months," Fryer says.

Advanced Switching will certainly find its uses, though, as the technology is meant to accommodate multiple protocols. The Advanced Switching Interconnect Special Interest Group (ASI-SIG) boasts 60 members. At Supercomm, StarGen Inc. released what it says is the first chip using advanced switching, and computer-board maker Kontron Communications Inc. is using the chip in an ATCA hub that was demonstrated here (see StarGen Intros ASI Switch and Kontron Intros ATCA Hub).

The rise of ATCA could alter the way semiconductor vendors approach the telecom market. With standard chassis coming from systems integrators, the direct sale to the likes of Cisco could become less of an obsession.

"We believe that the ATCA market will be driven by systems integrators. So, the systems integrators need to become another channel for us," says Gilles Garcia, an AMCC strategic marketing manager.

To complete your ATCA fix, here are some of the other announcements out of Supercomm: — Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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