Monday, June 25, 2007

ATCA's failure points to blades

It looks like the big telecom OEMs are not interested in a move to standard chassis and backplanes, according to an excellent report in the EE Times print edition today from my colleague Loring Wirbel. "Full-sized ATCA may end up being a highly customized boutique business, while high-volume manufacturing moves to the smaller MicroTCA standard," Loring wrote from NxtComm in Chicago.

Board makers told Loring the handful of big telecom OEMs seem to be interested in all sorts of open interfaces and software tools, but not the ATCA standard. Now they are hoping the larger group of OEMs making a more diverse set of edge-networking systems adopt the MicroTCA spec, but that may be more hope than reality.

This sounds to me like a replay of what's going on in server blades. Everyone recognizes it would serve the end user best to have a standard size for boards that could fit into any vendor's chassis. But the four top players who control the brunt of the server market have been able so far to keep shipping an ever-changing mix of non-standard boards and boxes to lock users into their proprietary approaches and avoid doing what's right for their customers.

One embedded board vendor told Loring the ATCA failure became clear when Nokia Siemens Networks backed off ATCA following its merger. However, Kai Sjoblom, a technology manager at Nokia Siemens Networks (Espoo, Finland) said in an email that Nokia Siemens Networks "still plans to ship systems based on ATCA."

The company "continues to keep ATCA as a strong part in its hardware platform offering and the merger has not caused this basic plan to change," said Sjoblom who is also a member of the PICMG group that defines ATCA.

Another board maker at NxtComm told Loring the fact there is an ATCA standard for every flavor of backplane interconnect confused and drove away others. One board maker was so glum on ATCA, he said the company decided it will license its ATCA designs and do custom development for others. That's a huge change from just five years ago when the PICMG group behind ATCA was gearing up all its engines to drive ATCA.

Though things look dark today I would not give up on either ATCA or a server blade standard. We are in an era of radical cost savings when no one can afford to re-invent the wheel. Those dynamics could force even markets controlled by a handful of giants to bow to market pressures and common sense.

Interestingly, Intel was a big promoter both of ATCA and a server blade standard. It just wanted to see as many boards and systems sold as possible, no matter what the implications were for OEMs.


Anonymous said...

Standardized chassis makes sense when there is little innovation occuring and customers are trained and comfortable with the plug-n-play mentality. Getting to standardized chassis as seen in the desktop space takes years to occur and is predicated by innovation shifting from the chassis to the components within the chassis or how they are combined and such.

Server chassis especially when it comes to blades is too new, subject to an incredible innovation rate, subject to new and numerous technology inflections, and so forth to standardize at this time.

Stating that the OEM are doing a disservice to their customers is a bit much. Just look at the problems with aTCA to understand why such standardization failed. aTCA made incorrect assumptions about the power, thermal, density, cooling, etc. technologies. Given the very slow specification development rate combined with the long lead times to develop any chassis and the associated infrastructure, and there is no doubt that the OEM saw the writing on the wall long before PICMG and chose to bypass the standards and do what is right for their customers.

It is also critical to keep in mind that customers are focused on larger IT problems such as power / thermal management. They buy these systems in racks not per chassis as a further indication that they don't worry too much about whether the chassis is standard but that it operates in their data center or work space. As long it is can run volume OS, supply standard I/O, and attach to their storage they can focus their attention to their real problems.

This does not mean a standard chassis will evolve at some point but it is many years aways and due to the changes coming in multi- or many-core, it may be that no one will care about standard chassis. Even big customers like Google do their own thing and don't care about standards. Why would anyone else other than an Intel or IBM or the PICMG advocates who want to control the rate of innovation in the name of customer benefit which can be shown to actually be the detriment to customers. This is why these efforts are failing. The OEMs are focused on their real customer needs not technology suppliers such as Intel. They want to provide value not move only at the slow rate that Intel or PICMG can achieve.

Jorge Magalhaes, Motorola Embedded Communications Computing said...

The bottom line is that different vendors will see different ATCA adoption rates based on their products, their target markets and their individual success in these markets. There is a wealth of real evidence that ATCA and MicroTCA are becoming the de facto standards-based hardware platforms for a large part of next generation network deployments.

* Recent industry-wide surveys of both equipment manufacturers and suppliers by highly recognized industry analyst firms such as IDC, Light Reading, VDC, and Yankee Group report that:
- more than 40% of the Telecom Equipment Manufacturers are now shipping ATCA-based systems
- the outsourced ATCA market will grow to over $3B by 2011. Motorola considers this a healthy, growth market.
- most equipment manufacturers are using Ethernet (both 1-Gbit and 10-Gbit) for their ATCA-based systems

* The formation of the SCOPE Alliance and the CP-TA illustrate the industry’s recognition and commitment to these technologies and their standardized, rather than custom, development path.

* Telecom Service Providers are starting to ask for ATCA

* Public announcements of support for ATCA and/or ATCA-based product announcements from equipment manufacturers such as Alcatel-Lucent, Nortel, Nokia Siemens Networks, Motorola, UTStarcom, Oki, and Huawei.

The business drivers for ATCA and MicroTCA have not changed and the equipment manufacturers recognize the value of moving to COTS, standards-based technology.

The net of the story, both ATCA and MicroTCA are very important in meeting today’s and tomorrow’s technical and business requirements of TEMs.

Jorge Magalhaes
Director of Marketing
Motorola, Inc., Embedded Communications Computing

Rick Merritt said...

Kai Sjöblom of Nokia Siemens Networks has asked me to post this comment for him:

Nokia Siemens Networks continues its participation and sponsoring of ATCA related standardization work in the PICMG forum and sees the ATCA architecture as a very promising one.

Our company continues to keep ATCA as a strong part in its HW platform offering and the merger completion 2007-04-01 of the network businesses of Nokia and Siemens has not caused this basic plan to change.

Kai Sjöblom
PICMG RES Chairman and Nokia Siemens Networks Primary Contact in PICMG Executive Group

Contact data:
Mobile phone: +358-50-1626
Nokia Siemens Networks
Street address: Nokia Siemens Networks, Karaportti 2, FI-02610 Espoo, FINLAND

GSM said...

Actually there is hardly any innovation happening in server configurations. Take a look at the various blades, custom server clusters and compare them with ATCA. Do you really see a dramatic difference that will make a difference to the end-user ? Other than perhaps the switch from parallel backplanes to switched backplanes, what has been the major progess in chassis design ? If there really was that much innovation happening, one would be seeing white papers indicating the advantages of a proprietary backplanes over standard chassis. Granted there are minor optimizations possible but that advantage is not worth it.
This is just my opinion but I will take a 10% perf. hit to get a multiple source HW platform.

The primary reason for non-adoption is the fear of being commoditized.
The fear of a sub $1000 ATCA x86 card is what keeps the OEMs and the Tier 1 SBC vendors awake at night !
This I know from being involved in designing blades for at least 6-8 server Telco/Networking OEMs. In one case a std. configuration's dimensions were deliberately changed to make it proprietary, there was no change in the electricals or bus config ! You are right in that ATCA gives too may options and this has resulted in standards compliant boards not really being compatible. But I believe there is an effort to standardize this.

But the server blade vendors are all falling into line. Sun, IBM and HP offer AMC card slots and HP and Sun have ATCA blades too. Maybe IBM too .