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Is Your Network Ready for Industrial Digital Transformation?

Oct 19, 2022
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The Internet of Things (IoT), the cloud, and artificial intelligence (AI) are the most popular and most common referenced industrial digital transformation technologies. Thanks to these technological advances, preventive maintenance, production optimization, defective rates reduction, energy savings, carbon reduction, etc. are easily achieved. Supporting these technologies, however, requires a secure foundation that continuously deliver reliable operational (OT) data. Simply put, reliable industrial networking.

Evolving OT Networks

In our previous article, Behind Industrial Digital Transformation: Decoding the Secrets of OT Data, we pointed out that industrial digital transformation continuously adds value to OT data, changing it both qualitatively and quantitatively. Alongside these core changes, industrial networking technology has also begun to evolve.

In the beginning, most machines on factory floors were stand-alone operations, and OT data was mostly used to monitor and control the operation of specific equipment. Most of the data was confined to the devices in which they were generated and only transmitted through simple serial-based communication structures. However, as the need for automated systems arose, factories connected a variety of machines to communicate with each other. Two trends emerged: the amount of transmitted data increase tremendously and communication moved from a simple serial-based communication structure to a more complex one that integrated regional Ethernet.

Industry 4.0 Era, a.k.a. the industrial digital transformation era, made it possible for customers to optimize the operation of their machines and move beyond the mere monitoring of them. One significant outcome is OT data’s new status as a building block of industrial digital transformation. To achieve the required levels of optimization, OT data needs to be transmitted to IT systems or the cloud for further analysis. So, we can no longer confine OT data to the devices that generate it. These developments have set in motion three significant transformations in industrial networking:

  • From Intranet to the Internet: Breaking the Confines

To allow OT data to flow smoothly between OT and IT networks or the cloud, the silos that once served as a protection within internal networks can no longer exist. Also, as OT systems increasingly get connected to the Internet, the focus needs to shift from securing the physical fields to securing OT data, namely data security and OT network security. Just controlling inherent physical security risks, such as limiting physical access to the OT fields or prohibiting the use of personal USBs and laptops on-site, is no longer enough. For instance, when connecting trackside PLCs to a central control center, it is important to ensure that up-to-date anti-viral software protects the PLCs. Without such protection, PLCs can pose as a serious security risk to a system’s internal network. Therefore, cybersecurity needs to be a major focal point during deployment.

  • From Segregated to Integrated: Cross-generational Connections

As we require devices to become more interactive than reactive, subsystems that once worked independently must now work together. This systematic shift means the industrial networking technologies built in different eras will have to integrate with each other and form a new network. Subsequently, these developments create new management challenges that only a comprehensive visualization of the network can resolve. For example, as a client in the intelligent transportation system industry recently found out, their system became too complex to navigate once the entire network was linked. So, instead of saving on labor as projected, an additional 67% of their workforce was needed just to identify a disconnected link in the vast network. Hence, highlighting the need for industrial network management.

  • OT vs. IT: Eroding the Age-old Separation

For a more detailed analysis, more data, such as equipment status, images, and video feeds, is now required from OT networks, not just the standard control data it used to transmit. Take mining, for example, where remote intelligent operation systems need to identify risks timely to miners should they head into a dangerous zone. These systems can achieve this by collecting real-time information, such as live footage of the deployed automatic mining machines and the underground mining conditions, as well as live data, such as air quality, toxic gas extractions, etc.. However, both OT and IT data need to run on the same network, which could crowd the bandwidth. Such data traffic jams delay delivering crucial control data elsewhere in the system, resulting in interruptions in the production. Hence, ensuring an ever-evolving intelligent system while maintaining firm control on the deployed devices is critical.

As Your OT Network Is Evolving, Shouldn’t Your Management Style as Well?

We know now how important evolving OT networks are because any major snafu could damage production and risk personnel’s safety. Thus, learning to manage industrial networking effectively is a prerequisite for entering this realm. However, in most instances, only the data shown on monitoring systems (for example, SCADA) and terminal equipment is managed, while data generated by communication equipment between monitoring systems and field devices, or the ones between the devices themselves, is often overlooked. This could have catastrophic consequences if a disconnection occurs. Therefore, effectively elevating one’s OT network management capabilities is not just crucial but critical. To learn about more hands-on experiences in the OT field, listen to our OT Data Next Podcast.


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