Differences between industrial Ethernet switches and business IT switches

Industrial network switches are designed for harsh conditions and environments and last for a long time while business information technology (IT) switches are designed for data center applications and have a shorter overall lifespan.

By Paul Myer, Veracity Industrial Networks February 27, 2018

Dirt. Dust. Vibration. Shocks. Electrical noise. Blistering heat. Freezing cold. The quick answer to the question of why industrial Ethernet switches differ from business information technology (IT) switches is the industrial Ethernet switch is built to withstand all these challenges. The business IT switch, cosseted by air conditioning in data centers or nestling in a quiet corner of an office where dust is a dirty word, doesn’t have to.

Take dirt and dust. Business IT switches with fans for cooling will suck in air and, with it, dirt or dust particles. To compound the problem, fans have moving parts and lower mean time between failure (MTBF). Industrial network switches do not have fans. They rely on rugged design to resist heat better, and any buildup of dirt or dust.

Harsh electrical, temperature considerations

Vibrations, shocks, and electrical noise also separate the sheep from the goats when it comes to Ethernet switches. Industrial environments typically use DIN-rail mounting instead of the 19-in. rack mounting that is standard for business IT installations. Industrial network switches are designed to avoid vibration or shocks that could make cables fall out and to meet industrial EMC (electromagnetic compatibility) standards. By comparison, business IT switches are less resistant to vibrations, shocks, and electrical noise currents that can cause component burnout and other electrical damage.

The components used to build authentic industrial network switches are designed and tested for operation in broad operating temperature ranges, for example from -40 to +75°C (-40 to +167°F). Commercial switches are built for operation within much narrower temperature ranges. Outside these limits, their integrated circuits may fail when temperatures are high, or their network connections may lose their contact because of the cold.

Industrial network switches are built to work in harsh conditions such as manufacturing, transport, maritime, oil & gas, and mining. They are designed for high availability over long periods because downtime costs in industrial environments are often considerable. Business IT switches may have a lifecycle of only 1.5 to 3 years; industrial Ethernet switches may be kept working for 10 years or more.

Management and security considerations

Often, industrial network switches have been installed, configured, and left to get on with it. The priorities were network speed and reliability. In older installations, network management functionality in the switch was not included, because it interfered with the high communications performance (high speed, low latency) needed. Security is also largely absent because in yesterday’s isolated industrial networks, nobody could get in from the outside to hack them. Business IT switches are typically equipped for both management and cybersecurity.

With industrial networks are being connected to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), they will need suitable management and security. Older industrial switches will gradually be replaced by new ones, although for all the reasons above, business IT switches will not be used. Management and security will need to be done differently, for example, via an industrial network with the intelligence and performance to help meet these requirements.

Software-defined networking 

One robust, affordable solution that does have negative impacts on network performance is software-defined networking (SDN). By introducing SDN-compatible switches in the network, for instance, as part of the replacement program for older units, a software-defined network can make it easy to configure, control, and monitor Ethernet switches. This includes managing security policies in the switches on the types of traffic to let through or to block.

Industrial network switches will continue to differentiate themselves from business IT switches, but at the same time be on par with them in terms of external networking, network management, and cybersecurity. 

Paul Myer is CEO of Veracity Industrial Networks, Aliso Viejo, Calif. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

Original content can be found at Oil and Gas Engineering.