Five tips to modernize industrial network architectures

Optimize an industrial network design and stay ahead of potential future challenges by deploying a modern network architecture and following certain design tips.

By Gregory Wilcox January 3, 2017

A modern industrial Internet protocol (IP) network infrastructure has been increasingly essential for most manufacturers and industrial companies.

By using the latest networking technologies, breaking down data silos, and harnessing the power of greater connectivity and information sharing, the potential of smart manufacturing becomes a reality. This can help make real-time operations decisions and improve productivity in new ways, including:

  • Timely data access can help track key performance indicators (KPIs), improve processes, and help maintenance technicians get ahead of downtime issues.
  • Mobile devices can put subject matter specialists exactly where they need to be the moment a problem arises.
  • Self-aware and system-aware assets can automatically make adjustments to optimize processes and keep production running, with less need for human intervention.

Beyond productivity, a modern industrial IP network architecture can also help in other key areas. The ability to access and analyze safety system data, for example, can help managers better understand risks, enhance safety, and ease compliance. Mobile devices can deliver information to workers in a familiar and convenient format. The ability to track virtually every point in a product’s lifecycle—from raw-ingredient receipt to supply-chain shipments—can help improve quality and on-time deliveries. 

Key design and deployment considerations

For most organizations, network modernization involves bringing together information-technology (IT) and operations-technology (OT) systems into a converged network architecture. This creates a common, connected, and standardized infrastructure in which people, processes, and technologies can be seamlessly connected.

No modernization project to design and deploy an industrial network will be the same. Some general considerations should be kept in mind to help optimize a network design and proactively address risks.

1. Collaborate upfront

Modernizing a network infrastructure shouldn’t be a go-it-alone venture for IT or OT. Rather, it needs to be a collaborative effort that involves functional teams from across organizations. Early and open dialogue can help minimize any cultural differences by getting buy-in from all stakeholders. Most importantly, however, upfront collaboration is crucial to identifying potential risks and addressing them before they develop into problems.

Some areas where collaboration is key include:

  • Determining what connections are needed between the manufacturing execution system (MES) and enterprise business systems so everyone has access to the information they need.
  • Designing the network so maintenance can be done without disrupting production.
  • Coordinating safety and security efforts to help identify and mitigate potential risks that could arise from security or safety incidents.

2. Use design and deployment resources

Industry guidance and resources are invaluable during a network modernization project.

Rockwell Automation and Cisco jointly developed the Converged Plantwide Ethernet (CPwE) guide to provide design guidance, tested and validated reference architectures for deploying future-ready network architectures.

The CPwE design and implementation guide "Migrating Legacy IACS Networks to a Converged Plantwide Ethernet Architecture" is especially relevant for modernizing an industrial network infrastructure. It introduces the concepts and technologies that are needed to make the transition, while also providing tips on system design, configuration, implementation, and troubleshooting.

3. Choose the right protocol

One of the most critical decisions that will be made while designing the network infrastructure is selecting the right industrial Ethernet protocol.

Today, manufacturing and industrial companies are seeking to capitalize on the proliferation of connected smart devices that make up the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). IIoT devices use the IP, which provides the common language for different devices to coexist and interoperate on the same network.

Adoption of IIoT technologies will be a defining characteristic of the industrial sector for the next several years. Gartner forecasts that the number of connected things worldwide will reach 20.8 billion by 2020. And the technologies are expected to help manufacturers generate nearly $3.9 trillion in value through increased revenues and lower costs in the coming years.

EtherNet/IP from ODVA Inc. is an industrial automation protocol that harnesses the power of IP, allowing for the harmonious coexistence of all IP-connected devices. This includes not only devices designed for industrial use but also those designed for commercial use. Proprietary networking technologies with multiple isolated networks can’t support this cross-device connectivity, unless additional investments in gateways, protocol converters, or proprietary switching are made.

4. Use a holistic security approach

According to a recent report from BDO USA, 92% of manufacturers cited cybersecurity concerns in their 2016 securities and exchange commission (SEC) disclosures this year. What’s more, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security also reported that basic cybersecurity practices in many industrial organizations are "an afterthought or significantly less than needed."

Industrial organizations cannot ignore the fact that more connection points in a modern industrial IP network architecture also bring greater security risks.

No single security product, technology, or methodology can be expected to contain today’s massive threat landscape on its own. A security-through-obscurity approach is no longer sufficient. Instead, a holistic security approach is needed to help protect people, operations, intellectual property, and other assets.

An industrial security program should start with a security assessment to identify risk areas and potential threats. From there, plan to deploy a defense-in-depth security approach that establishes multiple layers of defense.

5. Plan for the future

The infrastructure lifecycle in the industrial automation space is typically between 15 and 20 years. But down the road, imagine what your operations will look like or how you will be using information given all the innovation that’s occurring today?

This is why it’s important that the industrial network infrastructure addresses the facility’s current needs while also anticipating those of tomorrow.

Adopting virtualization may be an option in the future, for example, which can cut the cost of acquiring, deploying, and maintaining servers. But it also increases the amount and type of traffic on an industrial network. As a result, the network infrastructure should be segmented into different virtual local area networks (LANs) to create smaller zones. An industrial demilitarized zone (IDMZ) with servers that can access the industrial zone also will be needed.

Likewise, incorporating remote access into operations will require that the network architecture supports video and other collaboration tools. Integrating mobile devices will require that the network supports tablet authentication and encryption.

Workforce changes also should be considered. A modern industrial IP network infrastructure combined with a smart production approach will have a significant impact on workers. It will require IT and OT professionals to have a full understanding of the converged environment and will reshape roles for those responsible for developing and overseeing it.

New training and certification programs are available to help address these challenges. The programs are tailored to both IT and OT personnel and provide the knowledge needed to implement, manage, and support networked industrial automation and control systems. If you want to start with the basics on network design, you may want to visit the Industrial IP Advantage Network Design eLearning courses, developed in collaboration between Cisco, Panduit, and Rockwell Automation.

Modern network architecture benefits

Smart manufacturing is digitizing and transforming nearly every aspect of industrial operations. Plants and systems that previously operated separately from each other can be integrated with end-to-end connectivity. Machines that had little or no visibility into their performance can be monitored in real time. Workers who were reliant on manually collected data and tribal knowledge can make better decisions with production intelligence, online support, and mobile collaboration.

The key to making all of this possible is a modern network architecture-one that not only meets the facility’s immediate needs but also addresses potential future challenges and anticipates future innovations and growth.

Gregory Wilcox is the global technology and business development manager at Rockwell Automation. Edited by Emily Guenther, associate content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media,


Key Concepts

  • Tips for deploying an optimized modern network architecture.
  • Key considerations for designing a modern network architecture.
  • Things to consider while implementing a modern network architecture. 

Consider this

What are the challenges of implementing/maintaining a modern network architecture?