Six ways to lower IIoT network costs

One consequence of the IIoT trend is that purchasing devices for your network isn’t the end of your expenditure.

01/06/2017


The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) trend is facilitating a growth in connected devices on networks as well as increasing the scope and complexity of industrial control networks that frequently converge with traditional IT networks. More now than ever before, concerns about security, availability and performance are having an impact on these industrial control networks.

One consequence of the IIoT trend is that purchasing devices for your network isn't the end of your expenditure. In fact, it is often only the beginning. Network operators are discovering a host of associated direct and indirect costs that often can exceed the initial investment in networking hardware.

This article considers some of the costs that often are overlooked, and suggests some best practices and tips on how to lower the total cost of ownership (TCO) for industrial control networks.

The time from the start of a project until it is up-and-running can be broken down into broadly six different stages. The challenge for network administrators is to have a deep understanding of each stage of the project, determine the key features that a device should include or support that are beneficial for each stage, as well as be able to estimate to what extent these features will be beneficial for future network needs. An additional challenge is that the features and benefits often don't appear in the hardware specifications of a product.

Here are the six stages, and their impact on TCO:

1. Reduce installation and integration costs

It is rare to see completely new network installations in industrial environments. The majority of network deployments involve a combination of new equipment and upgrades to existing SCADA systems, control networks and devices. As no two networks are the same, each network has its set of unique requirements. One of the skills that a network administrator must have is the ability to choose and deploy the right devices to ensure that the current and future requirements of the network are met. A good example of this is ensuring interoperability across all devices on the network throughout the project life cycle. Although there are numerous ways to overcome problems that may arise throughout the project, one of the best solutions is to choose products that offer the most flexibility.

For industrial networks, devices are often installed in control panels with other devices that run on different voltages, so one solution is to purchase a power converter to ensure compatibility. However, this may not be the ideal solution for all network administrators due to size constraints of the panel where the devices are being installed or the additional costs incurred from purchasing power converters. For some projects the cost of deploying new cables can add significantly to the overall costs of the project.

A better alternative is to use a device that supports a wide range of power inputs that will satisfy the present demands of the network, as well as provide more flexibility for devices that also must be added to the network at a later date. Although the initial expenditure may be slightly higher for a switch that supports these features, costs can be reduced over the duration of a project due to avoiding additional costs at a later date.

Here are the costs incurred within the project life cycle. Courtesy: Moxa.

2. Reduce configuration costs

One of the most time-consuming tasks for projects in industrial environments, and therefore one of the most expensive, is configuring devices on a network so that they perform well. A wide range of options are available, from very basic switches that offer no support with configuration, to large software packages that cost considerable amounts of money on a per-annum basis but greatly assist network administrators with the configuration process. As the number of devices on a network increases, so do the possibilities for savings. Below are some of the main areas that have been identified pertaining to the configuration stage of a project, all of which have a strong effect on the TCO.

Due to the convergence of industrial automation and IT systems across IIoT networks, EtherNet/IP and PROFINET protocols must have a way to operate together on the same network. Devices that have been preconfigured to allow for these disparate protocols to communicate automatically allow network administrators to deploy what is essentially a plug and play device. These devices also often will support automatic discovery and the ability to assign IP addresses automatically, eliminating a significant portion of the time required for manual configuration. Compare this with using cheaper devices, which will require a lot more effort to be spent configuring the devices later in the project.

Configuration costs are not limited to when the network is being setup for the first time. Any feature that allows copying and saving device configurations will provide network administrators with the ability to reuse these settings at a later date, and eliminate the need to manually configure new devices that are added to the network.

Configuration is also made a lot easier by an intuitive graphical user interface (GUI). Some companies offer an advanced testing kit that allows users to test a GUI and independently validate its claim that it is intuitive before installing the device on a network. An intuitive GUI can save network operators a significant amount of time during a project.


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