A brief overview
Before we start, it's probably worth taking the time to briefly explain a few things. If you are in the telecommunications industry, you probably already know the meaning behind terms such as ATCA, MicroTCA, and AMC (if so, skip down to the "Main Announcement" portion of this column
below). By comparison, if you are focused on other things like industrial, medical, and military applications, you may not have been exposed to this stuff before.
The point is that the ATCA, MicroTCA, and AMC concepts are starting to attract interest in a number of markets, which is what makes today's announcement from Actel so interesting. But before we proceed to the news from Actel, let's first consider the following (highly simplified) definitions of three terms.
- ATCA: The Advanced Telecommunications Computing Architecture (also known as AdvancedTCA or ATCA) is a specification that is intended to satisfy the requirements of the next generation of "carrier grade" communications equipment. ATCA covers an incredibly wide range of things, such as the mechanical, electrical, thermal, and system management properties of cabinets and the circuit boards that plug into these cabinets, how hot-swap capabilities will work, and so forth.
- AMC: Advanced Mezzanine Cards are circuit boards that follow the appropriate ATCA specifications. For the purpose of our discussions here, we may consider these cards to comprise two main aspects:
- System Management Functions: This includes power monitoring and management, thermal monitoring and management, hot-swap management, etc.
- The Payload: This refers to the logic and other devices that allow the card to perform its main function in life.
- MicroTCA: This refers to a specification that covers the mechanical, electrical, thermal, and management properties of systems in which AMCs are connected directly to a backplane.
The simplest way to visualize how all of this works is by example (note that the following is a gross simplification). First, let's assume that we plug a new AMC into an empty slot in the system. The management portion of this card will first power itself up, and then communicate with the cabinet saying what sort of card it is and what functions it can perform. At some stage, the cabinet will instruct the AMC to fully power up, at which time the AMC's management functions will apply the appropriate sequences to power up its payload.
Each AMC in the system has its own management functions that are monitoring various voltages, temperatures, power consumption values, and so forth. In the event of any problems, these management functions will communicate with the main system and also power-down the problem AMC in a graceful manner.
Now, let's suppose someone comes along and "pops the catch" holding an AMC in the cabinet. This automatically informs the main system that this AMC is almost certainly going to be removed from the system. In addition to instructing the management functions on the target AMC to power-down its payload in a graceful manner, the main system may perform other tasks such as automatically "warming-up" an appropriate back-up AMC that is already resident in the system.
All of this makes a lot of sense in the context of communications equipment that has to be "up" and available all of the time. This also explains why ATCA is of interest to the "mission-critical" systems found in industrial, military, and medical applications.
I could waffle on about this for hours, but we digress...
The main announcement
For quite some time now, the folks at Actel have been carving out a leadership position with regard to providing the system management functions on ATCA and MicroTCA AMCs.
If these management functions are implemented using discrete devices, they can literally require hundreds of components. The solution is Actel's Fusion family of mixed-signal programmable system chips (PSCs).
This is because a Fusion PSC incorporates analog functions, embedded flash, and FPGA fabric in a single chip. As a result, the Fusion PSC can integrate system management functions and offer programmable flexibility, providing an implementation that reduces parts count by 25 percent and board area by roughly 33 percent. At a time when designers are searching for system and power management solutions that minimizes system cost and complexity while improving power efficiency and reliability, Actel's mixed-signal Fusion PSC family is an ideal alternative to multiple discrete devices.
Now, this is where things start to get interesting, because a portion of the programmable fabric on the Fusion PSC can be used to implement an embedded FPGA-optimized 32-bit ARM Cortex-M1 processor. When equipped with appropriate firmware, this processor can provide the most sophisticated system management functions, but how would one go about acquiring the appropriate firmware?
This is the reason that the folks at Actel have partnered with the guys and gals at Pigeon Point Systems, who are the market-leading supplier of TCA management components. (When I say "market-leading", this isn't just "fluff" – for example, Pigeon Point ha something like 80-to-90% market share for firmware sales in the MicroTCA market.) Together, Actel and Pigeon Point plan to deliver system management platforms for higher performance applications.
Their first products will include development kits to speed the design of Advanced Telecom Computing Architecture (ATCA) and Advanced Mezzanine Card (AMC) carrier board management controllers, all based on the Intelligent Platform Management Interface (IPMI) architecture.
According to industry estimates from market research firm VDC, the opportunity for the overall standards-based TCA system market is expected to be roughly $1.8 billion by 2009. If say 20 percent of this is realized in silicon, then the power and sophistication of Fusion-based solutions should end up making the folks at Actel very happy campers indeed!
Pricing and availability
The first turn-key solutions developed by Actel and Pigeon Point Systems will be available in Q3 2008 as development kits for ATCA blade IPMCs and for ATCA AMC carrier IPMCs. These solutions will be implemented on a common bench-top development board platform. For more information on pricing and availability, contact Actel at www.actel.com.