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Telco Systems Hops ATCA Hurdle

Light Reading
News Analysis
Light Reading
10/28/2004

Telco Systems (BATM) has won something of a lead in integrating multiple optical interfaces into Advanced Telecom Computing Architecture (ATCA) linecards -- cards that aim to simplify manufacturing of telecom equipment. The company says it's integrated 24 fiber optic Gigabit Ethernet interfaces into a single ATCA card -- a feat that's helped it win distribution agreements with Alcatel SA (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA), Platt, and Graybar in recent months.

The company's T6Pro line is an ATCA-based switching and routing platform, which the company says is currently field deployed as a core aggregation switch for the Israeli Defense Forces’ Ethernet network, among other places.

The task wasn't easy. “The ATCA linecard is not optimal for optical interfaces,” says Avi Cohen, VP for R&D and engineering at Telco Systems. “It took a lot of engineering effort...

“Our target was 24 fiber optic Gigabit Ethernet interfaces into one linecard. After a lot of effort and after locating the small form-factor pluggable interfaces in a vertical, not horizontal, position, we succeeded. From my perspective, this is the maximum... and I didn’t find anyone out there who has done more."

“It’s not a trivial solution, and it adds expense,” says Cohen’s colleague Irit Gillath, Telco’s VP of IP product line management. But now that it’s done, says Gillath, it’s a competitive advantage.

That's a big deal, because several vendors say the integration of optical components into ATCA linecards has proven tougher than expected. The ATCA specifications are aimed at simplifying telecom equipment manufacturing, but they're causing some head scratching among the optical networking crowd.

Some background: ATCA is a host of specifications now governed by the PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group (PICMG) that aim to bring about one standard platform in terms of dimensions, power supplies, shelf management software, and many other engineering specs to telecom equipment manufacturing.

ATCA has at times been a contentious issue for incumbent carriers and the components and subsystem suppliers who aim to please them. The old way of doing things -- with proprietary and closed systems -- locked service providers into using the same vendor for years of expansion, repair, service, replacement parts, and maintenance (see AdvancedTCA Makes Headway).

In the past, these dependable, multiyear revenue streams helped vendors fund the expensive, multiyear engineering programs that designing the follow-on generation of carrier networking gear would require.

This inertia caused Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), which initially espoused the change, to hand ATCA over to PICMG in 2001 to broaden participation in the effort. Optical components makers, though, have not been openly involved in the effort, as shown by their absence from the ATCA roster.

But in the last year, large industry concerns like Alcatel, NEC Corp. (Nasdaq: NIPNY; Tokyo: 6701), Samsung Corp. together with KT Corp. and Siemens AG (NYSE: SI; Frankfurt: SIE), have publicly endorsed the migration, and engineering activity to support it has increased. And as many of them have learned, the devil is in the details (see ATCA Finds More Friends).

Getting optical interfaces on ATCA linecards hasn't been trivial for Intel, Nortel Networks Ltd. (NYSE/Toronto: NT), JDS Uniphase Corp. (Nasdaq: JDSU; Toronto: JDU), or Ciena Corp. (Nasdaq: CIEN) either. All say their engineers are working on it -- and that’s all they can say.

“We have a few groups working on this, and we are taking this issue very seriously,” says Intel spokeswoman Connie Brown. “We want to do the right engineering thing to extend the market potential of AdvancedTCA, but haven't come to a definite conclusion yet on what our approach will be. My understanding is that nothing is ruled out at this point.”

Ditto for Nortel and Ciena. JDS Uniphase spokeswoman Pamela Sufi says that the optical interface to ATCA-based systems “is an area that’s still largely proprietary.”

Steve Hauser, principal architect in the technology office of Motorola Inc.'s (NYSE: MOT) Embedded Computing Communications Group, says the ATCA spec does leave the integration of optics for I/O open. It’s the reason certain engineers say ruefully there is “too much optionalism” in the specification, he says.

Motorola ECCG’s initial ATCA shipments, which are set to happen this quarter, are going to what's widely perceived as the first frontier of the ATCA migration: wireless carrier network radio network control (RNC) sub-systems. “Some [RNCs] don’t even have optical interfaces,” says Hauser.

Hauser says Motorola's lineup supports 16 to 24 copper Gigabit Ethernet ports in the rear transition module [RTM], which provides rear I/O.

— Gale Morrison, special to Light Reading

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