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Network of the Future

Though there’s no way to tell exactly what the network of the future will look like under the effects of the Industrial Internet of Things, there are three universal network aspects worth focusing on to prepare yourself—and your network—for the future.

What will automation networks look like in the next 5-10 years? Wherever the Industrial Internet of Things trend leads us, the underpinnings of future industrial networks that are universally beneficial to adopters will focus on Connectivity, Uptime, and Innovation.

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Connectivity

Using open standards in an automation network allows manufacturers of all sizes to realize similar benefits compared to proprietary network solutions – with the added benefits of increased ease of use, and critical future-proofing. Using open standards also enables a transition to future networking requirements since the engineers who install these systems today might not be same ones working on them tomorrow.

Since companies want to get started implementing Industrial Internet of Things technologies right away, these solutions need to be future-proof. By adopting the widely used open standards of today, they can enable the network of the future for tomorrow. Future networks will need to selectively expose data to higher level IT systems for Analytics and Big Data applications to act upon. Control engineers and plant managers presently don’t know where/how/when these connections will be made. But with well-defined data access protocols, they can ensure that these applications will be able to access that selectively exposed data much more easily.

One of the biggest challenges facing manufacturers today is the aging workforce and retirement of the baby boomer generation. There will soon be a knowledge gap that needs to be overcome by future control engineers. Under the thumb of a proprietary solution, the potential for know-how loss is high. On the other hand, with open standards, a new engineer has many resources to learn the protocol. PROFINET is one such open protocol, and furthermore has well defined Application Profiles for extended data format standardization.

Uptime

What good is a manufacturing environment if it isn’t up and running? In the network of the future 0% downtime will be taken for granted. How do we maximize productivity by ensuring network uptime? Again, two features stand out as solutions to these issues, and are fortunately already available today: scalable redundancy and scalable security.

The most basic way to ensure uptime is at the physical level: by using a ring shaped network. This topology creates two connections for every device. However, don’t try this at home! Doing so would cause Ethernet packets to go around in circles, eating up bandwidth and causing major headaches. Technologies like MRP (Media Redundancy Protocol) account for this by managing traffic, and in the event of a broken connection in the ring, convert the ring to a line topology. Such recovery can take tens or a hundred milliseconds. Going further, in PROFINET ‘bumpless redundancy’ the failover time is zero milliseconds. In bumpless redundancy, a sender uses two frames, going in opposite directions around the ring. So, even with a failure, a frame will still arrive at the receiver. To ensure 100% uptime, redundant devices and even redundant controllers can be installed, thus expanding upon simple network redundancy.

The single biggest perceived challenge to a converged network is security. In business systems, security objectives are typically ranked in terms of priority as follows:

  1. Confidentiality
  2. Integrity
  3. Availability

In many automation systems, the ranking of security objectives in terms of priority is completely opposite:

  1. Availability
  2. Integrity
  3. Confidentiality

To achieve scalable security, IT and OT need to agree on a security architecture that should be:

  • As simple as possible but not simpler (Albert Einstein)
  • As uniform as possible – if a rule is applicable in one case, it must also be followed in comparable cases
  • Understood and supported by all parties involved
  • A daily activity and not a one-time-only task

If these can be reached, the network of the future can be a reality by allowing automation and business systems each to maintain their security objectives.

Innovation

In the network of the future, OT and IT need to share the same foundation (Ethernet) while exposing their data for vertical integration. The beauty of Ethernet is it allows enterprises to use the right protocols for the right task.

There will always be different protocols used for different tasks. As network architectures continue to evolve, these protocols will begin to share the same infrastructure. That common infrastructure is standard unmodified Ethernet. So long as an automation protocol uses standard unmodified Ethernet, the benefits ‘come for free’ as Ethernet matures. For example, the IEEE has continually updated the 802.3 Ethernet specifications to increase the bandwidth from 10 Mbit/s to 100 Mbit/s, to 1 Gbit/s, and beyond. PROFINET is one such protocol that uses standard unmodified Ethernet. As higher bandwidth Ethernet is installed to accommodate multiple protocols, this speed increase happens automatically.

It is not just the infrastructure that needs sharing to further innovation in the network of the future; it’s also the platforms. If Ethernet is the ‘how’, then protocols for the data are the ‘what’. PROFINET handles the controlling and gathering of data from devices within production systems. Via proxies, it also gathers data from non-Ethernet devices. Meanwhile, standards like OPC UA enable the communication between, within, and from production systems. When used in tandem, they complete the clear path from shop-floor to top-floor and into the cloud where analytics can be applied.

This article originally appeared in Automation World.

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