Using wireless to gain a network and data monitoring edge

Gaining access and data from areas previously inaccessible allows for greater knowledge and visibility of what is going on throughout the manufacturing enterprise.

By Gregory Hale, ISSSource August 22, 2016

Much to the surprise of workers at one major oil and gas organization, they found over 250,000 network interfaces that never carried traffic at all. This anonymous organization went out and bought and installed network switches, but came to find out they had all these ports on these switches that went completely unused.

Instead of buying all new switches every year, they learned they could redeploy all the ones they already had to serve the network traffic. That is a major lesson in network monitoring 101.

Wireless can provide financial benefits and improve productivity. Gaining access and data from areas previously inaccessible allows for greater knowledge and visibility of what is going on throughout the manufacturing enterprise.

The numbers back that up with the forecast for industrial wireless sensor networks to reach close to $1 billion by 2020, according to market research conducted by MarketsandMarkets. On top of that, Gartner predicts that by 2020, utilities, manufacturing, and government will have the three highest numbers of connected devices. Along those lines, the Berg Institute said the installed base of wireless devices in industrial applications reached 10.3 million connections at the end of 2014, with the number expected to expand at a 27.2% compound annual growth rate to 43.5 million devices by 2020. Analyst firm IDC said the IoT market in manufacturing operations will grow from $42.2 billion in 2013 to $98.8 billion in 2018, a five-year growth rate of 18.6%.

On top of the booming growth of wireless devices and wireless sensor networks, the use of wireless backhauls, which are significantly less expensive to install, and provide secure data transmission, make it easier to set up new nodes or temporary data centers. Throughout the operational technology (OT) enterprise, wireless backhauls make it possible to extend sensor and control networks anywhere in the plant.

Wireless gives a manufacturer more knowledge, which means a stronger capability to understand what is occurring throughout the process, which increases the potential for cost savings, productivity, growth, and profitability.

Benefits and tradeoffs

There are potential issues that come with all these potential benefits.

Knowledge and understanding of wireless is sometimes tenuous at best. There are those that have not put a thought around the concept of super reflection, retransmission and interference from other signal sources. They think all they have to do is put up an aerial with a wireless signal and then go out and find the other end and receive it. Being able to report on what is actually happening with those connections on either side including the errors and faults and retransmission times where packets end up resent because of an error, is not something people look into. The need for more visibility is vital.

Wireless ISPs that do long haul wireless use the right equipment. However, some have no way of measuring or capturing metrics with their standard set of devices, but one goal is to use the correct tool to look at, understand, and then act upon the data.

This allows them to get actionable data that shows them CPU usage versus traffic retransmission or dropped frames or retransmission requests. They could learn what channel the device is operating on or they could set an alert saying if it is not working on one channel let me know if something has changed on the network. It is also possible to get GPS metrics from some of the wireless devices. That becomes important when an engineer has to go out to the device.

It is possible to pull information from the device such as the output power signal, the number of other detected devices, interference, signal levels, and other detected clients.

The user can also find the number of clients that connected over time. In an OT environment, those numbers should be stable. Typically, when devices connect, they stay connected forever. If there are quite a few up and down changes in that count of connected clients, there might be a problem in that link. If there are a high amount of bit error rates, there might be an issue with the reliability of the link. Those are data points the manufacturer can monitor – and keep the history forever to learn what was really happening on Tuesday, March 24, 2014, compared to today.

That is also a fundamental component of a good security strategy in keeping an audit trail and history. Let’s face it, the end user will not always catch or stop an attacker from doing something, and since the victim may not find out until later that something happened, then it is possible to go back and find the history and find out who did what and when. This way the user can find out who connected at such and such time and what device did they access.

Connections and traffic load

In a wireless environment, the number of connected devices relative to the number of physical connections is high. It is kind of like virtualization, when there may be one physical server and have 10 or 20 virtual machines running on it, it is the same thing with wireless. There might have one access point and have several hundred clients connected to it. And every one of those clients has an IP address and is generating traffic on the network. Monitoring that traffic load and what the clients are generating remains paramount. When the traffic load increases, it is time to start capacity planning.

By watching the traffic generated on the network, the user can figure out if they make subtle changes to their network architecture they could save money by redistributing the way traffic is carried between the links they already have. Or, if there is heavy traffic for clients going to specific servers, what if they locate the servers closer to the clients’ location. Now the manufacturer is not carrying all that traffic over a wide area it is paying for every month. If the user has a good picture of where the traffic comes from and where it is going, then he or she can make some smart decisions and get the most value.

Leveraging the data to make smarter investment decisions is really where the manufacturer will see a big benefit. In a cost-conscious environment, that is a profitable lesson learned in network monitoring 101. 

Gregory Hale is the editor and founder of Industrial Safety and Security Source (, a news and information Website covering safety and security issues in the manufacturing automation sector. This content originally appeared on Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, CFE Media, Control

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