Military Embedded Systems

AdvancedTCA delivers military COTS promise


December 09, 2010

John Long


Changes in the military equipment market are driving new system designs to leverage commercial products and technologies, and AdvancedTCA is stepping up to the front lines to meet this challenge.

Changes in the military equipment market are driving new system designs to leverage commercial products and technologies. The ideal technology would offer design features readily adaptable to military applications, a modular architecture, and a diverse vendor base to keep costs down and innovation high. AdvancedTCA is an open-standard COTS form factor that – with the support of industry organizations like the Communications Platforms Trade Association (CP-TA) ensuring multivendor interoperability – is proving its ability to deliver on all these promises in military applications.

Additionally, the military market spending paradigm has shifted significantly. For instance, traditional military acquisition called for purpose-built equipment that a single prime contractor designed for a specific application. The result: a growing accumulation of proprietary system designs that could neither interoperate nor readily exchange data.

Another aspect of the military spending paradigm shift is a lag in military systems technology behind commercial products. The time required to design systems from scratch, prove their reliability, and enter production resulted in military systems that were years or even decades behind commercial systems. This technology lag, as well as the high cost of traditional acquisition, has prompted the U.S. military to increasingly require designs based on COTS products.

And finally, yet another shift in the military market is the growing need for network-centric systems. In addition to full-scale war, military actions are increasingly involving unconventional conflict, such as insurgencies, which demand that both the warfighter and upper command have rapid access to actionable intelligence. Addressing these objectives requires a greater emphasis on Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) – not only on weapons superiority. AdvancedTCA addresses these network-centric requirements by delivering built-in reliability and ruggedization as well as high performance. Meanwhile, CP-TA helps drive interoperability for AdvancedTCA components.

Interoperability is key

These C4ISR systems must exhibit a high degree of interoperability. One reason is that they must be able to handle information from a wide array of information sources, including satellites, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), ground troops, radar, and sonar. Systems must also be able to reliably exchange information and coordinate command decisions among differing service branches as the military moves to a network-centric doctrine. An increasing emphasis on cooperation with and reliance on allies, as directed by President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates, also demands interoperability.

Achieving such interoperability through traditional proprietary design approaches, even if COTS-based, is extremely difficult. However, one proven solution to interoperability issues is to design systems around a framework based on open standards. AdvancedTCA is one such open standard, originally created for commercial networking equipment designs, that has a broad multivendor ecosystem. VPX is another standard that is a contender for serving the military segment for next-generation high-performance computing systems. However, VPX has a limited number of vendors and is still challenged by interoperability issues, though the new OpenVPX standard is making headway on solving VPX system interoperability dilemmas. The AdvancedTCA architecture is also ideal for addressing the military's emerging network-centric design needs. AdvancedTCA is a high-reliability, modular design approach that offers the robustness and performance that the military requires. By comparison, AdvancedTCA offers nearly double the computing power of comparable VPX systems.

AdvancedTCA: Upon closer examination

AdvancedTCA's foundation is a card cage with a high-speed, protocol-agnostic, switched serial backplane that accepts blades containing computing, routing, I/O, and other networking system functions in any desired combination. Each blade is also modular. Advanced Mezzanine Card (AMC) modules on the blades carry a blade's unique computing and I/O functions (Figure 1). This level of modularity allows highly complex and optimized systems to arise from a handful of standard module types.


Figure 1: AdvancedTCA is a highly modular architecture using a switched-serial backplane connecting large carrier cards, configurable using mezzanine cards of varying sizes.




The blades are large, supporting four AMC modules apiece, which allows a high degree of functionality on a single blade. The standards also allow for the creation of systems using AMC modules plugged directly into a backplane. Systems built to this MicroTCA standard have full architectural and software compatibility with AdvancedTCA systems and use the same AMC modules but offer a much smaller form factor.

AdvancedTCA's built-in reliability and ruggedness

Because service providers consider their telecommunications systems to be "mission critical," both high reliability and ruggedness are vital to the mil/aero industry.

High reliability

AdvancedTCA includes many high-reliability architectural features that can translate directly to the mil/aero industry. The AdvancedTCA specification calls for built-in system management and error detection, hooks for fault isolation and redundant system configuration, and the ability to perform live blade replacement (hot swap) with electronic keying to avoid errors (Figure 2). These features allow system designs that achieve greater than five-nines (99.999 percent) reliability and short Mean Time To Repair (MTTR). This level of availability enables mission-critical computing and is one reason that AdvancedTCA has gained traction into applications such as UAV ground control stations.


Figure 2: AdvancedTCA includes complete system management functions for fault detection and module-level control of high-reliability features.

(Click graphic to zoom by 1.3x)




PICMG has recently increased the permitted power dissipation for AdvancedTCA blades and is increasing backplane speeds to support 40 Gbps links between blades.


There is also effort underway to standardize methods for enhancing the ruggedness of AdvancedTCA to meet the ANSI/VITA 47-2005 (R2007) specification, also known as the Environmental, Design and Construction, Safety, and Quality for Plug-In Units standard, which in turn draws from MIL-STD-810F. The target specifications are environmental classes EAC1 and EAC4 for convection-cooled systems, which include operation with ambient temperatures from 0 ºC to +55 ºC, 2 g (5-100 Hz) or 8 g (100-1,000 Hz) vibration, and 20 g shock.

This enhanced ruggedness is not a first step toward addressing military needs; it's merely an additional one. The original AdvancedTCA environmental specifications follow Network Equipment Building Standard (NEBS) requirements, which go beyond the laboratory and office environment into something much more demanding – the central office.

The NEBS Central Office Relay Equipment (CORE) GR-63, Level 3 specification defines those environments and is similar to MIL-STD-167 for equipment in shock-isolated cabinets. The NEBS specifications include a requirement to withstand the mechanical shock and vibration equivalent of a magnitude 8.1 earthquake and operation in temperatures of -5 ºC to 50 ºC for up to 96 hours (continuous operating environment range is 5 ºC to 40 ºC). In addition, the equipment must operate reliably after coming out of 72 or more hours of storage at -40 ºC to +70 ºC and being brought to 25 ºC within five minutes. HALT/HASS testing can be used to ensure that the equipment will operate reliably within this range.

Proven military program performance

While AdvancedTCA's specifications are not as stringent as the military's most extreme environmental requirements, they are suitable for a majority of installations such as C4ISR and command and control centers. Compared to the battlefield, for instance, shipboard and command center environments are relatively benign and not as demanding on equipment. AdvancedTCA-based systems have already proven themselves fully able to meet the installation needs of such "benign shelter" environments. Lockheed Martin[1], SAIC[2], and Hughes Networks[3] have all publicly declared the adoption of AdvancedTCA in some of their deployed military systems for such applications. An AdvancedTCA-based design is currently providing support in the Multimission Maritime Aircraft (MMA)[4] system, for instance, as well as aboard the P8A Poseidon airframe.

AdvancedTCA is also under evaluation for programs such as the U.S. Navy's Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services (CANES)[5] program, which is intended to consolidate the shipboard network infrastructure into a standard off-the-shelf solution. One goal of the CANES project is to support a two-year refresh cycle on system software and a four-year refresh cycle on hardware for the next 20 years. The modular nature of AdvancedTCA makes that refresh cycle easy to achieve.

AdvancedTCA: Ready for military deployment

AdvancedTCA thus fulfills the requirements of a COTS solution for many of today's military market demands. It is modular, flexible, and widely supported; meets the ruggedness requirements of most applications; and simplifies both maintenance and system evolution. It is an established and technically robust architecture with industry support to ensure multivendor interoperability and continued technical evolution. Further, it has been field-proven both in its original commercial application and in several military systems. AdvancedTCA has shown that it delivers on all the promises of COTS in military system designs.


  1. "Rugged MicroTCA opens up," by Joe Pavlat, Contributing Editor, Military Embedded Systems magazine,
  2. "AdvancedTCA joins the Navy," by John Walrod, SAIC, CompactPCI, AdvancedTCA & MicroTCA Systems magazine,
  3. "Iridium Selects Hughes to Develop Access Network Controller as Major Step Toward 'Iridium NEXT,'"
  4. "Why AdvancedTCA merits serious consideration for defense systems," by Scott Burgan, Consultant, The Corner Group,
  5. "AdvancedTCA: Open standard moves beyond the Central Office," by Brian Carr, Emerson Network Power Embedded Computing, CompactPCI, AdvancedTCA & MicroTCA Systems magazine,

John Long, a product line manager at RadiSys, also serves as a CP-TA member. He has more than 10 years of experience in the communications industry holding various marketing, sales, and operational positions with Intel, Dialogic, and AT&T. John has an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University. He can be reached at [email protected].

CP-TA 503-619-0680


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