Here’s Your Sign … That It May be Time to Turn Your Ad Hoc Network Into a Real Infrastructure

Sept. 6, 2013
There are five indicators that help you determine if your industrial Ethernet network is due for an upgrade from its current ad hoc assemblage to a real infrastructure.

OK, so you’re not a bleeding edge early adopter of new technologies, but you’re never last to market either.  Over the years, you’ve watched, tested and welcomed the move to industrial Ethernet; you’ve even made it your company standard.  And you did all this with good reason — unlike its fieldbus predecessors, industrial Ethernet provides a bigger, faster and wider pipe for all the control and information you can pour into it.

Because industrial Ethernet is so flexible and forgiving, expanding your industrial Ethernet has proven to be a breeze. After all, it only requires that you tack on a few switches and take care to pick new IP addresses for the devices you add.

But at some point, you have probably wondered when all of that bandwidth and flexibility will hit a limit and the network will begin to become a problem for you.  That sense of foreboding is not misplaced.

As you read on, you’ll learn about the top indicators — the “here’s your sign” moments — of a network run amok (special thanks to Bill Engvall for use of his “Here’s Your Sign” catchphrase in this article). These indicators should serve to convince you it’s time to clean up your industrial network infrastructure before problems occur.

1. Start with what you don’t know

If you’ve been expanding your network simply by adding industrial switches here and there, you’re in good company. It’s a common and viable means of enlarging your network. However, if you:

  • don’t have up-to-date logical and physical drawings of the network;
  • don’t have your network properly represented with monitoring software;
  • believe it may be tough to find all of the pieces/parts of your network at the ends; and/or
  • don’t know the specific routing of cables and boxes in the middle …

… then here’s your sign that you are very likely due to upgrade from an ad-hoc network to a real infrastructure. 

2. How many and what kind of devices?

Today’s drives, I/O, motor starters and other many other automation devices that connect to PLCs, DCSs and motion & safety controllers now come equipped with Ethernet connectivity.  

If you’re adding these kinds of devices to your network, think about how significantly larger the network is growing. While adding these devices will not likely challenge the edge of your bandwidth or performance, it may be more difficult for you to manage the network as a whole.

To deal with the inevitable growth industrial Ethernet networks, some users have created smaller networks separated by PCs and PLCs. However, this approach can lead to programming and maintenance becoming a lot more complex. Bottom line: If you can’t accurately count all your Ethernet-connected devices in your head … then here’s your sign that you are very likely due to upgrade from an ad-hoc network to a real infrastructure. 

3. Does it take longer to find a problem or fix it?

The basic rule of troubleshooting is this: First you isolate the problem, then you fix it.

With a well-designed network infrastructure and a few good network management tools, you should not have to spend more than a minute or so isolating the vast majority of network and networked device problems. This allows you to spend whatever time is needed to fix  the problem(s).

If your network grew in an ad hoc manner, however, you may not be set up to properly isolate those problems. So, if it takes longer to find a problem than to fix it … then here’s your sign that you are very likely due to upgrade from an ad-hoc network to a real infrastructure. 

4. Are you ready for more?

 While you’ve been expanding your network in an ad hoc manner with good results in the past, there may be a little voice in your head that’s growing louder with each expansion. You should listen to it.

Maybe you used to be able to confidently tell yourself, “If I break something, no big deal. Since the network is still pretty small, I can have those few switches and devices connected to it back up and humming in no time.”

If this is no longer the case … then here’s your sign that you are very likely due to upgrade from an ad-hoc network to a real infrastructure. 

5. Are you the only one who knows the ropes?

With a growing network, it makes good sense to grow the number of people who are trained and capable of working with it as well as you are. With ad-hoc networks, however, this is rarely the case.

When the network is small, there is rarely a shortage of people who are willing and able to add a device, re-route a cable, or troubleshoot a problem. But as the network grows ad hoc, it inevitably limits the number of people who are willing, able, or even allowed to work with the network.

If you’re the only one who truly knows the ropes … then here’s your sign that you are very likely due to upgrade from an ad-hoc network to a real infrastructure. 

Next steps

Don’t worry! Upgrading your ad hoc network to an infrastructure doesn’t need to be painful, risky or expensive. The opposite is often true. Belden and its authorized partners will help you with industry-leading design best practices, and we can even certify your network with a plan for expansion in whatever direction you need it to go.

Once you have a clean industrial network infrastructure, you can use our guidelines and help for trouble-free future expansion, or simply go back to ad hoc expansion mode, but with renewed confidence that your recent improvements have pushed you away from the edge and back into the middle of the swimming pool.

So, no matter where you are in your network development, just be sure to read the signs!

For more information about industrial Ethernet networks—both ad hoc and infrastructure—access the following links:

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