Ethernet reliability in the age of IIoT, digital transformation

Improving Ethernet technology can enable the better coordination of operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT) communications and improve reliability.

By Thomas Burke November 6, 2022
Image courtesy: Brett Sayles


Learning Objectives

  • Ethernet has become the default for industrial manufacturing systems.
  • Users can engineer Ethernet reliability into an application by first knowing what products will be using the network and then coordinating the network’s use.
  • The adoption of Ethernet with time-sensitive networking (TSN) can manage reliability through added bandwidth, communications scheduling and traffic management.

Industrial Ethernet, manufacturing reliability, IT and OT insights

  • Ethernet can help information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) networks better connect and eliminate downtime.
  • Industrial Ethernet also should enable devices to schedule communications, avoiding communication collisions and potential snags.

The continuous need to improve manufacturing processes and become more competitive is driving industrial communications advancements. Ethernet is already advancing with new speeds and has become the default for industrial systems. While the slower moving automation market is still operating at 10 or 100Mb speeds, the information technology (IT) world is benefitting from 1 to 10Gb speeds. Some industrial networks are already delivering 1Gb support. While increased bandwidth helps to handle more traffic, it does little to improve reliability in a market that requires 100% reliability.

Today, users can engineer Ethernet reliability into an application by first knowing what products will be using the network and then coordinate their use of the network. By default, this requires closed networks, which limits access to data. This limits the opportunities for continuous improvement and digital transformation.

The manufacturing industry is constantly looking to improve performance, save costs and eliminate downtime. Access to industrial networks – (operational technology (OT) networks) from business networks (IT)) can enable and optimize digital transformation strategies, but how remains a challenge.

Improve Ethernet technology for better IT/OT communication

Improving Ethernet technology enables better coordination of OT and IT communications. Ethernet relies on a process of identifying collisions in communications and then covering after a wait time. While this is a good process for general purpose IT networks, it is not optimal for OT networks.

Traffic message sizes also pose a challenge, and care must be taken to ensure a device doesn’t consume an inordinate level of bandwidth at any one time. While it would be great to improve all end devices on a network for conformance, an alternative solution would be improving the Ethernet standard to “shape” traffic through frame preemption and prioritization.

Ethernet also should offer time synchronization, enabling devices to schedule communications, avoiding communication collisions. Devices can coordinate their communications, knowing they have been negotiated for dedicated use. Precision timestamping is achieved at the nanosecond level of accuracy.

Five benefits of combined IT/OT network implementations

These Ethernet enhancements were started in 2012 by the IEEE 802.1 [Ethernet] working group. The first result was delivered in a new specification in 2018. Ethernet with time-sensitive networking (TSN) is very important for industrial automation applications. TSN brings five benefits – some immediate and some to be realized over time:

The four short-term benefits are:

  • All OT devices are available from an IT network – Enabling improvements in analytics, asset management, and device management.

  • Improved performance – The combination of scheduling, prioritization and greater bandwidth is resulting reliable, larger, and more complex applications.

  • Simpler architectures – Resulting in cost savings and improved reliability.

  • Troubleshooting ease – Users can now leverage IT tools such as simple network management protocol (SNMP) to interact with and manage devices.

  • The long-term TSN benefit is Improved cost effectiveness through new product delivery and market competition – Initial solutions focused on high performance applications. Over time, device vendors and infrastructure vendors have stepped forward with compatible product offerings.

TSN: Improved industrial network integration

Ethernet with TSN will be implemented in “Islands of TSN,” dedicated to a machine or a production line, delivering high performance, deterministic and reliable communications, while bridging those communications to IT networks to enable wider access to information.

As the push continues for higher performance, tighter controls and converged networks, there needs to be an equal focus on maintaining reliability. The adoption of Ethernet with TSN will be the easiest solution for managing that need for reliability through added bandwidth, communications scheduling and traffic management.

Thomas Burke is global strategic advisor at CC-Link Partner Association (CLPA), a CFE Media and Technology content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology,


Keywords: Ethernet, IT/OT networks


How have Ethernet networks helped your facility?

Author Bio: Thomas Burke, global strategic advisor, CC-Link Partner Association (CLPA)