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COMMENTARY: Three Must-Have Features for Automation Networks

 What are the must-have capabilities for automation networks in 2018? The answer depends on what area of automation you deal with—are you designing an automation device, upgrading a network or supporting a new project? But for Hilscher here are the capabilities we think are most important.


First there’s Time Sensitive Networking (TSN). Touted as the way to bring new levels of interoperability to our universe of industrial communication protocols, it will undoubtedly become widely adopted. But don’t assume it’s the answer to all your prayers for a single networking solution.


What do I mean? Fundamentally, TSN provides a common way of synchronizing critical networks. Every networking technology organization is currently embedding it into their protocols and it will certainly be easier for different elements of our networking world to work together. For example, EtherNet/IP, PROFINET and Sercos III could all become application layers with a common physical layer … and with the performance of CIP Sync or IRT-based systems.  When this happens, interoperability becomes the new normal. Engineers can use a common set of network diagnostic tools, making plants simpler to design and maintain. 


Coupled with OPC UA (our second must-have feature) and its clever information model, TSN does promise network transparency. And not just for basic automation data but also for other sources such as video.  With IIoT becoming ever more important, some experts reckon it could open up new ways to architect plants.


Our third must-have capability, and perhaps the most important, is security. Cyberattacks are so commonplace that I fear we have become complacent.  For an individual, a security breach is scary enough, but it’s not on the same scale as an industrial process or national resource being hacked.  Raw data is a target in plants and processes – and for many industries that is a big issue. The potential for local and national disruption is of even more concern. 


Security should encompass the entire life cycle of products and plants: suppliers must be trustworthy; every component should be free of suspicion. Products must be securely booted to underpin the “chain of trust” in order that firmware and app software can be loaded safely. Systems must exhibit resistance and resilience and be able to deflect or neutralize any effects.


Data integrity is key too. Since operational data streams can be compromised anywhere between source and recipient, each party to the transaction – including any intermediates - must prove their security before transmission is allowed. Fortunately, authentication procedures are plentiful, well understood and widely available. 


We, as Hilscher, can’t solve all the issues for you. However, as networking interface specialists, we can have impact at the connectivity level. Take the netX 90 chip, Hilscher’s latest slave interface chip. It’s one of the most advanced and innovative chips we’ve ever produced. At heart, it’s a powerful and versatile gateway for popular sensor and IIoT protocols to connect with Real Time Ethernets and IT infrastructure. But it also supports the security features described above, and more. Most attacks will probably arrive via an external network. To limit any harm, the netX 90 is split into two functional segments – one handling the network-facing functions (i.e. communications), the other handling the applications-facing functions (i.e. operations). In this way it’s possible to mitigate the effect of external attacks on control-side activity.  We believe the netX 90 to be a first in our industry and we think it marks the beginning of an important trend for automation product design. 


Few of us have much leverage over national security issues, but for the automation and control equipment we design and use, we all have a huge responsibility. Put simply, our automation networks are only as good as they are secure.


Author: Phil Marshall, CEO, Hilscher North America, Inc.