Bridging the OT/IT network divide

Industry today relies on an array of specialty networks and legacy protocols. Manufacturers are looking to secure that investment where it can and add IIoT, too

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Because the industrial communications landscape evolved in relative isolation from the greater world of IT networking, it’s populated with a variety of “point-in-time” solutions designed to solve problems specific to industrial environments. In their earliest iterations, device-level and plant-floor communication links often relied on proprietary technology from a single supplier to provide sufficient levels of reliability and determinism. But over the years, these protocols have become increasingly standard and open, allowing diverse ecosystems of system and device suppliers to work together in plants and factories around the world.

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Ethernet is increasingly a common denominator, and underpins the latest generation of the “industrial Ethernet” solutions that prevail today. Profibus morphed into Profinet. EtherNet/IP has its roots in ControlNet. CC-Link became CC-Link IE (for industrial Ethernet). Meanwhile, Foundation fieldbus over “high-speed” Ethernet becomes Foundation HSE, and HART becomes HART IP. Ethernet-based EtherCAT and Powerlink also are central players in the machine -automation space, and even Modbus, a 35-year-old serial communication protocol, has new life today as Modbus TCP. 

Initially focused on simply getting data from one place to another, some of today’s industrial communication and integration standards also have become increasingly rich, with added layers of security, diagnostics and semantics. OPC UA, in particular, has been embraced by many suppliers on the OT side of the divide, and IT-side providers are kicking its tires as well. (See sidebar)

Few existing industrial facilities have a uniformly current network infrastructure, and fewer yet can afford to rip and replace everything they have. As a result, the integration of plant-floor devices and systems with today’s brave new world of the industrial IoT (IIoT) is rarely addressable with a one-size-fits-all solution.

Assessment is job one

The first step in preparing for the IIoT is documenting the network that you have, says Mark Wylie, global vertical market manager, industrial IT, for Belden, a specialist in networking infrastructure. “Many industrial sites have networks that evolved over time: they added Ethernet here, and a Wi-Fi access point there, but they don’t have a properly documented, segmented network.” Some plants turn a blind eye to these issues, hoping instead for “security by obscurity,” Wylie notes. “They rely on the fact that the network is hidden. But if the plant network goes down, there’s no way to know where the issues are.”

“The IIoT is just accelerating the amount of data on these networks,” Wylie adds. “You can get ready to play in the IIoT by first documenting and preparing your infrastructure.”

Rockwell Automation also stresses the importance of assessment when undertaking to build a converged OT/IT network that will enable the realization of what the company calls “The Connected Enterprise.” The assessment stage of Rockwell’s Connected Enterprise Maturity Model involves a thorough evaluation of all aspects of an organization’s OT/IT network, including IT hardware and software, control systems and devices that feed and receive data and networks as well as the policies, people and processes involved in managing this framework—if a recognizable framework even exists.

“We assess the readiness of an industrial company to change its processes and information architecture to leverage timelier and more accurate information that is available in the enterprise today,” says Keith Nosbusch, Rockwell Automation chairman and CEO. “We often find that less effective legacy processes are in place, and that those processes and work flows have not been designed to take advantage of the OT/IT convergence and the significant benefits available from the connected enterprise. We then help industrial companies establish a strategy that systematically, sequentially, and securely integrates the technologies, processes, and people.”

Once gaps and weaknesses in the current OT/IT network and support structures have been identified, Rockwell Automation then works with its customers to develop a remediation and upgrade plan with an eye to long-term plans and new technologies. A secure and converged OT/IT network, in turn, lays the groundwork for an organization to inventory and begin to leverage the “working data capital” it now has access to, and apply analytics to improve operations internally and collaborate more productively with suppliers and customers. 

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Developed by engineers at Festo AG, these artificial ants demonstrate how self-organizing individual components can communicate with each other and solve complex tasks as a networked overall system. The BionicANTs are intended to demonstrate how future production systems can be based on increasingly intelligent components that flexibly adapt to different production scenarios.

Bridging old and new

From a practical perspective, bridging the IT/OT divide and securing the resultant architecture will likely require some new network infrastructure as well as a combination of gateways, protocol converters and firewalls where it makes sense to keep older networks in place. “Many older pieces of equipment still communicate serially, and until they are made more intelligent, IIoT will be on the backburner,” says Eddie Lee, director of global industry marketing, Moxa. “We’re focused on serial-to-network converters, device servers—getting all those legacy -devices onto the IIoT playing field.”

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