3 Must-Have Features for Automation Networks

May 9, 2018
With all the technology advances occurring today, there’s no shortage of advice out there when it comes to the capabilities your automation networks will need. As a network technology company, here’s what we think should be your key points of focus.

I’m being asked more and more often: What are the must-have capabilities for automation networks in 2018? The answer depends on what area of automation you deal with. Are you designing an automation device, upgrading a network or supporting a new project?

From Hilscher’s viewpoint as a network technology company, here are the capabilities we think are important.

First, there’s Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN), one of the most talked about technologies of recent years. Touted as the way to bring a new level of interoperability to our universe of industrial communication protocols, it will undoubtedly become widely adopted—and soon. But don’t assume it’s the answer to all your prayers for a single network solution; it might be even better than that.

What do I mean? Fundamentally, TSN provides a common way of synchronizing critical networks. Every networking technology organization is currently embedding it into their protocols and it will certainly be easier for different elements of our networking world to work together. For example, EtherNet/IP, Profinet and Sercos III could all become application layers with a common physical layer and with the performance of CIP Sync or IRT-based systems. When this happens, interoperability becomes the new normal. Engineers can use a common set of network diagnostic tools, making plants simpler to design and maintain.

Coupled with OPC UA (our second must-have feature) and its clever information model concept, TSN promises network transparency—literally from plant floor to the sky (as in cloud apps). And this is not just for basic automation data, but also for other sources such as video. With the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) becoming ever more important, some experts believe it could open up new ways to architect plants.

Our third must-have capability for 2018, and perhaps the most important, is security. Cyber attacks are so commonplace that I fear we have become complacent. For an individual, a security breach is scary enough, but it’s not on the same scale as an industrial process or national resource being hacked. Raw data will be a target in plants and processes—and for many industries that is a big issue. The potential for local and national disruption is of even more concern.

Security should encompass the entire lifecycle of products and plants. Suppliers must be trustworthy, and every component part should be delivered free of suspicion. Products must be securely booted to underpin the “chain of trust” so that firmware and app software can be loaded safely. Systems must exhibit resistance and resilience against attack and be able to deflect or neutralize any effects.

Data integrity is key too. Since operational data streams can be compromised anywhere between source and recipient, each party to the transaction—including any intermediates—must prove their security before transmission is allowed. Fortunately, authentication procedures are plentiful, well understood and widely available.

We at Hilscher can’t solve all the issues for you. However, as networking interface specialists, we can handle your connectivity-level concerns. For example, consider the netX 90 network chip, Hilscher’s latest slave device interface. The netX 90 is one of the most advanced and innovative chips we’ve ever produced. At its heart, it’s a powerful and versatile gateway for popular sensor and IIoT protocols to connect with real-time Ethernet networks and IT infrastructure. But it also supports the security features described above, and more.

For instance, most attacks will likely arrive via the external network. To limit the harm that could be caused, the netX 90 chip is split into two functional segments—one handling the network-facing functions (i.e., communications), the other handling the applications-facing functions (i.e., operations). In this way, it’s possible to mitigate the effect of external attacks on control-side activity. We believe the netX 90 to be a first in our industry, marking the beginning of an important trend for automation product design.

Few of us have much leverage over national security issues. But for the automation and control equipment we design and use, we all have a huge responsibility. Put simply, our automation networks are only as good as they are secure.

For more information, visit Hilscher North America at www.na.hilscher.com.

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