Ethernet Has Brought IT and OT Closer Together
The rise of the Industrial Internet of Things has changed both the technical and cultural aspects of the automation industry:
- On the technical side, there has been the decades-long shift from fieldbus to Ethernet. This has culminated in the ubiquitous IP networking that now connects numerous automation and control systems to the internet via extensible industrial Ethernet protocols such as EtherNet/IP®, PROFINET®, and EtherCAT®.
- On the cultural front, this growing adoption of Ethernet solutions has blurred the lines between IT and operational technology (OT). Ethernet can be run from the factory floor all the way up to enterprise IT, connecting previously isolated legacy devices to a TCP/IP stack.
In this way, plant operators now face IIoT-related challenges similar to the ones in front of businesses trying to keep pace with big changes to software development. Many of the latter have taken up DevOps—a movement that aims to bring siloed parts of the organization together to address technical and cultural issues—to help ease their transitions. Is something similar happening in the automation industry?
How Ethernet Opens the Doors to the IIoT, as Well as a New Culture
As Joey Stubbs of the EtherCAT technology group has pointed out, Ethernet can be the sole network running throughout a manufacturing operation.1 It can help cut cable and equipment costs, drive down power consumption, and supply the bandwidth needed by normal and real-time applications.
“The integration of Ethernet with automation can start at the lowest levels and continue up to the process control level for controller-to-controller networking, and then up to the enterprise network level for SCADA and reporting,” Stubbs wrote in Control Engineering. “When properly selected, industrial Ethernet today can be the only bus needed to conduct the business of manufacturing. An inexpensive yet high performance Ethernet-based fieldbus technology will enable the process or machine to perform at the highest levels of efficiency. Through increased performance, higher precision, and better diagnostic capabilities, industrial Ethernet will also lower equipment costs, help manufacturers produce better products, and help eliminate waste and power consumption.”
EtherCAT as an Example
Speaking of EtherCAT, it is a possible option for IIoT connectivity. It encapsulates its own telegram with the Ethernet frame, while improving communications quality by using on-the-fly processing and supporting a wide range of topologies. Thus, it is both Ethernet-compatible and deterministic, further strengthening its case as an IIoT technology. The IIoT connects many legacy devices to the Internet.
The EtherCAT example is just one of many highlighting how convenient, highly efficient Ethernet protocols are bringing IT and OT—once clearly separated—closer together. These teams will have to work in concert on issues such as security and data integrity, especially considering the potential vulnerabilities created by connecting so much additional infrastructure to IP networks.
“The wall between the office and the plant floor is going away,” Lenze president Chuck Edwards told Automation World.2
Ethernet and Beyond
Ethernet provides the technical basis for unifying and simplifying the factory network. After that, it is up to the new culture of nearly interchangeable IT and OT to ensure that this network is secure, manageable, and scalable. Specific actions could include dividing infrastructure into subareas such as production or machines to make them easier to oversee, along with implementing proper segmentation and authentication to prevent intrusions/infections from spreading across the network.
“Ethernet provides the technical basis for simplifying the factory network.”
Think of Ethernet as the seed for the transformation of industrial automation for the IIoT. After it is planted, the work begins on ensuring that specific solutions and practices are matched to the plant's particular needs.
1 Joey Stubbs. “EtherCAT: Ethernet for Automation, Best Practices.” Control Engineering, 2014.
2 Stephanie Neil. “Creating a New Breed of Manufacturing IT.” Automation World, 2015.