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Foxboro/Invensys Adds "Mesh" Networking for I/A Series

By providing multiple paths between network stations, the technology enables networks that can withstand multiple points of failure without communication loss.

“Mesh networking,” a multipoint-to-multipoint approach to networking that provides high reliability, is already gaining momentum in wireless applications. Now, with the introduction of new technology from Foxboro Automation Systems, a unit of London-based Invensys, mesh network technology also comes to the world of wired and fiber-optic-based process control networks.

Foxboro today unveiled its mesh network technology for use with Invensys’ flagship automation platform—the I/A Series system. The new technology incorporates commercial off-the-shelf Ethernet switches, ports and fiber optic media in advanced mesh configurations that provide multiple communications paths between network stations. As such, according to Foxboro, it can be used to configure “ultra-high-availability, high-performance, switched Ethernet process control networks and field networks for new I/A Series systems.” The technology can also be used to efficiently extend existing I/A Series systems, the company says.

Compared to earlier redundant/fault tolerant network configurations that could overcome a single point of failure, Foxboro’s mesh network goes a step further. “Unlike conventional redundant networks, our new mesh networks can be configured to maintain nonstop communications even when faced with multiple points of failure, such as simultaneous loss of a communications port and a wire break,” says Foxboro Vice President Steve Young. “To the best of our knowledge, this capability is unprecedented in the process control industry.”

Self-healing networks

Mesh networks provide high reliability by routing messages through any of multiple communication paths. Upon rapid detection of one or more network faults, diagnostics in the Foxboro system automatically configure the communications path to maintain system communications. “In effect, the network is smart enough to heal itself,” says Young.

At ARC Advisory Group, a Dedham, Mass., research firm, Senior Analyst Harry Forbes notes that the Foxboro mesh technology should enable users to “to build very high availability networks, much higher availability than they have even now.” Other benefits will include easier network serviceability, because failed portions can be replaced or repaired while network operations are ongoing, he says, as well as increased flexibility for users to expand networks as needed.

“I would say this is definitely the shape of things to come,” Forbes says of the Foxboro technology. “And you will see other suppliers doing the same kind of thing.”

Foxboro says its mesh technology can be used to configure plantwide process control networks as well as provide a secure, high-performance link between I/A Series control processors and their associated fieldbus input/output modules. Where appropriate, I/A Series workstations, control processors, device integrators and fieldbus modules can all be placed on a common mesh network, the company says.

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