Fieldbus / Wireless / Industrial Computers

Industrial Networks: Priorities and Pigeon Holes

Nebulous Networks and Virtualized Computing Can Be Better Understood by Organizing Them into Approachable, Function-Based Segments

By Jim Montague

I've been spending time among the cables and networks again, and it's freaking me out. I know it doesn't help that I've never worked hands-on with them. Still, I never had trouble understanding the migration from point-to-point 4-20 mA to fieldbuses, Ethernet and wireless. No, what's unhinging me mentally now is the fact that data processing can apparently happen any place and in any form—anywhere a smaller, faster, cheaper microprocessor can be located. And what goofs me up even more is that all this tiny, varied and far-flung computing power is also dissolving into an intangible, invisible presence. This is thanks to all the rack-mounted computers running the equivalent of dozens or hundreds of virtual PCs, who-knows-where server farms, and cloud-based computing services, again aided more by huge leaps in data processing. In many applications I cover, I can't even describe where exactly the numbers are crunched. But as much as it bugs me, I know it unnerves many uptime-focused process engineers even more.

Fortunately, while I was covering this month's "Break It Up" cover article for Industrial Networking, I was reminded that the disjointed, disembodied feeling that goes with an invisible network can be fought if process control engineers and their IT counterparts jointly assess existing networks, prioritize needed tasks, plan new functions, and cooperate on implementing them. Just organizing, segmenting and pigeonholing an overall network into subnets separated by managed Ethernet switches and firewalls can give users a lot of much-needed peace of mind.     

For example, Emirates Aluminum Co., Ltd. recently built its $5.7-billion, smelting plant in Taweelah, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE), to produce 1.4 million tonnes of aluminum per year, and installed several continuous-process, batch and semi-batch applications and production networks, as well as links to upper-level MES and ERP systems. To keep its networks independent and isolated, but still able to share data where needed, EMAL worked with consultant and system integrators Keops Technologies Inc. in Montreal, Canada, and Dubai, UAE, and BBA in Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Quebec, Canada. Together they organized demilitarized zones (DMZs) and dual firewalls for the networks and implemented Ethernet-to-the-Factory solutions from Cisco Systems Inc. and Rockwell Automation. These included Cisco's Catalyst 3750 and 6500 Series switches from to form a 10-Gbps fiber-optic network and Rockwell's dual-facing Allen-Bradley Stratix 8000 industrial Ethernet switches running Cisco IOS in each production area. As a result, EMAL uses its DMZs to bridge its enterprise and manufacturing networks, including its power, energy and material handling, reduction, and carbon and cast house areas. Each has its own manufacturing network and enterprise network with a DMZ bridging the two, while redundant power supplies and Cisco's Virtual Switching System provides redundancy.

QED, right? It shouldn't be a surprise that logical planning can dispel the fog of nebulous networks and virtualized computing, and that both can be better understood and resolved by organizing networks into approachable, job-based and function-specific segments.

How about a spooky, Twilight Zone-style, twist ending? You got it. While writing about how cooperation can aid industrial networking, I stopped dead near the end when I realized that process control and IT engineers may not have to cooperate after all. This is because a cloud-based service can enable a company's departments to sign up for their own data processing, bypass many common networking conflicts, and avoid interacting if they desire.   

So though it's often said you can't just buy a black box to solve your problems, microprocessors and the cloud may be proving that you can. Well, try to get some straight-up, human face-time anyway, even it if it's only on Skype.