Checklist to Good Industrial Networking Health

Industrial networks are not static. Devices are always being added, different people are coming on and off the network, the business it supports changes, and new ideas that may alter the network never stop being raised. With this in mind, here’s a checklist to keep handy for annually reviewing the health of your network.

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For most of you, Ethernet has invaded your manufacturing or production environment over the last few years.  What started as a network to connect computers and operator interfaces to PLCs has become the network of choice for control, safety, and SCADA.  In addition, engineering, operations and management also use the network to manage quality, supply chain, logistics and finances due to the timely retrieval of information from this now ubiquitous Ethernet network.

But have you looked at your network design lately? Chances are you’ve added several Ethernet nodes over time. A new machine here, a new manufacturing line there, and a handful of IP cameras scattered about.  If this is the case, you’re probably seeing multiple Ethernet switches popping up in the strangest places whose primary purpose is to be a landing spot for numerous nearby Ethernet devices from which a connection is then made to the control room. 

When faced with these kinds of networks that have evolved over time, you have to wonder if the switches and physical media are specified for industrial use? The fact is, many of them may not be, especially if an IT colleague was the one who designed and selected the equipment.  Also, depending on the size of your manufacturing or production setting at your facility, this commercial grade equipment is likely exposed to the same environment as much of your production-area automation devices. 

To avoid the networking troubles these kinds ad-hoc networks can create, it’s important to keep your industrial network healthy and ready to adapt to the changing demands the business may place on it. To do this effectively means that five issues must be addressable by you and/or the network itself: Evolve, Converge, Manage, Innovate and Go Invisible. The review described in this article will guide you through the aspects of your network that should be assessed on an annual basis, at minimum, to ensure to the ongoing viability of your industrial network.

 

Evolve Your Infrastructure

Evolution is an ongoing process that never stops, and this applies equally to your industrial network. To ensure your network is capable of evolving with the business check these five attributes

  • Ensure proper network Segmentation. Make sure physical and functional zones are identified and segmented with Layer 3 switches and routers.
  • Add resiliency as appropriate. As with redundancy in your automation systems, your network also needs backup to ensure no single failure will affect data transmission across the network. IEC 62439-2 identifies solid measures of doing this.
  • Implement Security. Ongoing reviews of network security are critical to network health. Segmentation, as described above, is just step one. To learn more about the 5 core steps to securing your network, see this article< link to http://www.automationworld.com/security/5-steps-practical-cyber-security>
  • Pay attention to physical media. Not all cables and routers are the same — especially when it comes the industrial arena. These articles on cabling and switches offer details to help you better understand why it’s important to care about the physical media you select for your network
  • Know where you’re heading. Though it’s impossible to predict the future of your business, it is possible to make sure there’s room to spare on your network as the business grows and adapts. As you spec network equipment based on current needs, be sure to allow room for growth. For example, select switches that have a few more ports than you currently need. And ensure that those switches are high-performance, high-capacity switches with backbone-to-backbone port speeds of 10G or higher connected by fiber cable.

Converge

Chances are the network in your facility has been evolving in some fashion for more than a decade and likely has more devices connected to it than it needs. Therefore the idea of network convergence really centers on simplifying and cleaning.

Opt for having fewer technologies connected to your network and ensure those that are connected are in accordance with networking policies and procedures. Network management software makes it easy to detect and remove non-adhering devices that may get added on over time. For more information on establishing good industrial networking policies and procedures, read the “7 Steps to ICS and SCADA Security”.

Manage the Infrastructure

Follow corporate IT’s best practice & trade secret — manage the infrastructure, not all the individual pieces/parts. By treating this as a system and using the right tools, you will be managing the infrastructure, not an individual network or individual device such as a switch, router or end node. Investing in solid network management tools is not only key to managing your network health, but ensuring your mental health as well.

Innovate

Realize that true innovation is not merely the gradual improvement of a product or process, but rather a leap-frog improvement that skips several steps in advancement or goes in another, more preferable direction entirely. To achieve this for your network, you should look beyond the industrial arena’s best practices and examine what works best in other areas. Leveraging inspiration and technology from the commercial universe can lead to an array of new ideas to improve the health of your network —once those ideas are vetted for industrial application, of course.

Make it Virtually Invisible

To make your network virtually invisible, you must create an infrastructure that can support the varying demands of your business. This means that your communications network must be able to dramatically scale and adapt on-the-fly without the need for adjustments or upgrades each time a change is needed. This adaptability is what is meant by the term “invisible network”. It’s not that it’s really invisible, of course. The term simply means that the network’s structure allows for such easy adaptability that it almost seems invisible. With the increasing implementation of industrial Ethernet on the plant floor, achieving the virtually invisible network is now easier than ever before.

Learn how to make your network virtually invisible and future-proof it to grow with the business.

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