One of the subjects I’m most interested in is how MicroTCA and AMC modules are evolving to open up opportunities in lower cost spaces such as the enterprise and industrial markets.
As many people know, the AMC specifications were driven out of the need for hot swappable mezzanines for ATCA blades. The MicroTCA specification was kicked off based on the belief that by plugging the AMCs into a backplane wrapped by a smaller enclosure that the AMC market would be greatly expanded. One of the more contentious issues in the specification discussion was about potential cost targets. At the time, it must have been difficult to imagine how new integrated devices such as the Intel Atom processor would drive system level pricing down when combined with lower cost packaging and other optimizations. Now, a couple of years after the MicroTCA specification was ratified, I am often amazed by some of the applications for which potential customers are thinking of using MicroTCA systems. Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised, as I started my own career by using open standards-based boards for embedded applications, but that’s another story.
Back to the subject, one question I’ve been asked is whether it is possible to remove some of the built-in AMC features such as hot swap, in order to save cost. Most of these questions come from people who have legacy hardware and who believe that hot swap particularly is not of any use to them. I suppose a typical application might be in industrial automation where the system is controlling and/or monitoring a process. Typically, to carry out maintenance the controller is switched off, as well as the equipment or production line, so there is no need for hot swap and therefore it appears irrelevant.
As industrial automation becomes more complex, I have seen installations that are complex to shut down and take a long time. Having the ability to add an additional module on the fly, even if only for troubleshooting, can be extremely beneficial.
I have also started to see a few instances where one MicroTCA box is used for more than a single function. For example, the ability to add an additional Intel-based processor for monitoring or server functionality without requiring all the existing modules to be powered off is extremely useful. The idea of upgrading these embedded systems while live seems to be gaining a bit of momentum, especially now that other techniques such as virtualization have started to break the mental barrier that one module does a single task in one box.
If anyone has similar views on how they envisage hot swapping to be used I would be interested to hear.