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Industrial network management: Finding the perfect solution

Supplier: CrispTech By: Hochin Yang, Product Manager, Moxa Inc
11 May, 2011

If you manage or operate an industrial automation network, then network management is something that you are already doing.

All of the activities that are involved in configuring, maintaining, monitoring, and troubleshooting your network are network management. For example, it is important to know which parts of your network are dependent on each other, how heavily each section of the network is being used, whether some devices are more prone to failure than others, and when devices should be replaced to prevent failure while in use. In industrial networks, chances are that most of these complicated tasks are done manually, by hand. Wouldn't it be ideal to automate these management tasks with software, in order to improve the efficiency of the process? That's exactly what network management software (NMS) does.

What is Network Management Software (NMS)?
With network management software, it's possible to quickly assess the health of your most valuable asset: the network. Many networks today are so complex that if something goes wrong it takes a long time to locate the problem. In this kind of situation, attempting to fix the problem without an accurate picture of what is wrong amounts to troubleshooting in the dark. With proactive network monitoring, it is possible to locate problems before they become emergencies, and locate emergencies before they become catastrophes.

Enterprise-based information technology administrators have long enjoyed the benefits of NMS on enterprise networks. With NMS, IT administrators can identify which services are most heavily used, when or where to add more resources, and maximise uptime. Industrial Automation (IA) engineers, envying the efficiency and reliability that NMS provides to IT networks, have long wished that a similar solution existed for their own networks. Some have even gone so far as to attempt to use existing enterprise NMS (eNMS) software for their industrial networks. Unfortunately, the results have been less than ideal.

Round Pegs, Square Holes: Shortcomings of eNMS in Industrial Networks
The problem is that most NMS software packages available today are not actually network management software in the broad sense of the term: they are actually enterprise network management software (eNMS). eNMS is an excellent solution when used in the scenarios for which it is designed: IP-based office networks, commonly arranged in a dual tree or star topology. But when eNMS attempts to manage industrial networks, it's like asking a F1 race car to run an off-road rally course: eNMS simply isn't designed for the rigors of this kind of challenge. A number of key obstacles prevent eNMS software from truly fulfilling the dreams of IA engineers:

eNMS is designed for enterprise networks: The internet protocol is widely adopted for use in enterprise IT networks, and eNMS software targets IT networks by operating at the logical IP layer. This approach is perfect for IT networks, but industrial networks are often concerned with activity at the physical layer, which the logical IP layer will obscure. For example, in some networks a single device may have multiple IP addresses. An eNMS solution would interpret this device as multiple different objects, which is not an accurate representation of the physical network. Other important physical features of a network, such as double links between devices and port trunks, are likewise transparent to the logical IP layer.

These physical objects and structures, such as cabling and redundant topologies, are of interest to automation engineers, but are poorly represented on the logical IP layer. Modern industrial networks are based on Ethernet technologies and take advantage of many recent IT developments. However, this does not mean the two are the same: IA networks use specialised Ethernet technologies such as real-time Ethernet in order to meet the demands of industrial applications. As industrial network technology advances, this divergence will only grow. There will be more and more differences in how Ethernet technology is used in enterprise and industrial networks, and eNMS will become even less capable of in industrial Ethernet applications.

eNMS is concerned with the big picture: eNMS software must monitor the full scope of the network, including services, servers, and routers. This includes high-level information such as whether or not the web server is up, or if the office has a connection to the outside world. Industrial automation networks are on a different level, “closer to the ground” of operations, with many switches and edge devices. Industrial engineers need accurate and prompt low-level information; eNMS provides extraneous information about higher-level objects that simply confuses the picture.

eNMS requires a different field of expertise: As software originally created for a completely different field, eNMS software demands a skill set that will be unfamiliar and exotic to automation engineers. An eNMS software solution presents a text-heavy screen full of tables that list service status. These tables of text may be clear as day to an IT professional, but is not very helpful for an automation engineer who is interested in a network overview. Deployment and installation of an eNMS solution is even more complicated, and often requires the services of high-priced outside consultants. eNMS administrators are typically IT professionals with specialised certifications and qualifications such as Cisco Career Certifications. It is unreasonable to expect automation engineers to possess this level of expertise in a wholly unrelated field, but it is equally infeasible to hire expensive IT professionals simply to manage the NMS.

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