New equipment standard has its debutante ball

A modular, standardized network equipment specification being pushed by Intel as a time-saver and cost-cutter for vendors of carrier gear made a splash at last week's Supercomm trade show in Chicago.

Several vendors were selling, demonstrating or announcing platforms built on ATCA (Advanced Telecom Computing Architecture), which is based on Intel-architecture processors and is intended to let makers of routers, switches and other network systems mix and match components from many vendors. An industry created around the architecture should free system makers from having to develop every element of their products so they can concentrate on adding innovative capabilities and getting products to market quickly, vendors and analysts have said.

About 50 vendors demonstrated ATCA-based equipment at this year's show, up from just a handful at Supercomm last year, according to Tom Franz, vice president and general manager of Intel's Communications Infrastructure Group. The consortium that developed ATCA, the PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group (PICMG), hosted a booth at the show with demonstrations by 28 vendors.

"What we're really seeing is a real movement from development to deployment," he said. In addition, carriers are beginning to adopt systems based on the architecture.

Korea Telecom announced with Intel that it is testing new services based on gear built from off-the-shelf ATCA components. The carrier, along with a local system integrator, built ATCA platforms for the services based on an Intel chassis and Intel processors. Development took a smaller team and half the time that would have been required previously, according to Intel. The services include multimedia caller ID and ring-back as well as videoconferencing.

China's Huawei Technologies, a major telecommunications equipment maker, announced it is embracing ATCA and carrier-grade Linux for its next-generation gear. The main benefit of ATCA will be faster time to market, said Edward Lin, a vice president at Huawei. To keep up with carriers' demands, the company has to support new kinds of services on its platforms roughly every month, Lin said.

Huawei currently builds systems on the CompactPCI architecture. More standard boards and software are available for ATCA, which should give Huawei more flexibility, he said. In addition, ATCA boards are larger than CompactPCI boards, so they can support greater port densities, he said. Huawei expects the carrier equipment industry, including most major vendors, to embrace ATCA, further expanding the market and the components available.

ATCA-based gear is rolling out into the market about as expected, according to Jag Bolaria, an analyst at The Linley Group. The biggest vendors, such as Lucent Technologies, are likely to join the game as their existing products come up for renewal, he said.

"Over the next five years, at some point in time these guys will deploy it in the low-end systems," Bolaria said. The main benefit of the standard architecture is lower cost of development from taking chassis dimensions, power supply specifications and other details from ATCA instead of working them out in-house, he said. In high-end systems, cost is less an issue, he added.

Specifications such as case dimensions are covered by the basic standard, ATCA 3.0, Bolaria said. Further standards define other details such as various choices of internal communications protocols including ASI (Advanced Switching Interconnect) and RapidIO. However, the industry isn't likely to standardize on those other characteristics for some time, if ever, he said.

Among the vendors making ATCA news at Supercomm was Telco Systems, announcing the commercial availability of its T6Pro, which it called the first ATCA-based carrier-class routing switch on the market. The T6Pro is designed as a metropolitan core and distribution switch for data, voice and video traffic and can be equipped with as many as 288 Gigabit Ethernet or 24 10-Gigabit Ethernet ports.

Teradiant Networks, demonstrated traffic manager chips it is offering to network equipment makers. The chips are expected to ship in volume in the first quarter of next year.

Through a partnership with Sanmina-SCI, Teradiant plans to provide full design, prototyping and manufacturing of ATCA-based platforms for equipment vendors. Those system vendors can differentiate their products through software developed on top of a Teradiant API (application programming interface).

Among the customers interested in Teradiant and Sanmina's offering is an Asian system vendor, said Subhash Bal, vice president of marketing at Teradiant. ATCA will make a big difference for vendors in that region of the world because they will be able to outsource the costly and expensive process of chip development, he said.

Force Computers, a unit of Solectron, introduced its first devices that are ready for deployment in carrier central offices, according to Roland Chochoiek, corporate director of marketing at the Fremont, maker of embedded computing products.

The company so far has been making development systems that name-brand equipment makers could use to create new devices. At the show, Force showed off systems that comply with the NEBS (Network Equipment Building Systems) standard that defines the requirements for central-office gear. Force also announced that Italtel SpA, an Italian vendor and integrator of multiservice carrier networks, will base a new generation of equipment on an ATCA modular communications platform from Force.

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