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.

By Richard Wood, Moxa Inc. January 6, 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.

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.

3. Reduce operational costs

A key way to lower operational costs is to minimize the amount of manual work needed to keep switches and a network operational. In addition, ensuring product suitability for deployment in industrial environments will also help achieve optimal operational performance.

The two main reasons why devices on industrial networks malfunction are their moving parts and the power inputs, often referred to as points of weakness. Switches that have an absolute minimum of moving parts are much less likely to malfunction or break, resulting in less network downtime and therefore reduced expenditure. Similarly, if the device supports dual-power inputs and one of the power supplies fails, the other power supply will keep the device running, allowing the faulty power supply to be replaced without network downtime. For deployments lasting longer than 10 years, which is the norm for IIoT networks, there is a very high chance that network administrators will encounter one of these problems at some point during those 10 years.

4. Reduce maintenance costs

The majority of IIoT networks are controlled by programmable logic controllers (PLCs). When the network performs scheduled maintenance and reboots, a PLC will often take about 20 seconds to reboot. If a PLC boots up before the network is ready to operate, errors will occur that can cause more delays. Switches that can boot up in about 10 seconds as opposed to 100 seconds will be ready to operate as soon as the PLC has rebooted, thereby avoiding these problems.

Being able to quickly view a network’s status via an app or software is one of the easiest ways to monitor the network. These apps and software sometimes incorporate a system that alerts network administrators that an event is taking place that has the potential to cause a failure on the network. Alerting the system administrator that a problem could happen, as opposed to a system that merely informs the administrator that a problem has occurred, is an excellent way of reducing maintenance costs. These features may increase the purchase price of the switch but over the course of the project are likely to result in substantial savings.

5. Reduce costs associated with downtime

Finding the root cause of downtime on a large-scale network is very time consuming, so any tools that assist network administrators with identifying the point of failure and allow them to quickly fix it will have significant advantages. Another skill of successful network administrators is to be able to calculate whether the additional costs of features that can help reduce downtime are likely to outweigh the costs of any downtime experienced.

Devices that can be remotely accessed and configured are very beneficial because they allow untrained personnel to perform the time-consuming task of going to the field site, while the trained specialist can perform troubleshooting and configuration remotely from the control center. In addition, a device that offers playback support allows the specialist to identify what occurred at the time the switch went down, and help improve the design of the network to avoid this kind of failure in the future.

Devices that backup the switch’s configurations on a dongle are particularly helpful if the switch malfunctions. To automatically import all of the settings, all you need to do is plug the dongle back into the switch. As no configurations need to be performed manually, the amount of network downtime is reduced.

As network administrators are not always based in the control room, mobile apps that support event notifications provide them with the ability to respond more quickly to events taking place on the network and allow them to get the network back to normal more quickly than would have been otherwise possible.

Self-healing redundancy technologies ensure that networks stay up-and-running even in the event of a single node failure. Deploying redundancy technologies that allow greater flexibility, availability and scalability for future network expansion can help avoid additional expenditure in the future.

6. Ongoing technical support

When purchasing a switch, a wide range of options are available, from cheap devices that offer no ongoing support or firmware upgrades, to switches whose technical support will cost significantly more than the switch over the course of the project. As switches are often deployed on networks for longer than 10 years, the technical support that comes with a switch will significantly impact costs in long-term deployments.

For example, new security threats are regularly identified and companies that offer ongoing technical support often will release a security update via a firmware upgrade to eliminate new cyber threats. Conversely, when a device on a network is compromised and ongoing technical support or firmware upgrades are not available, the network administrator will have to replace the device or risk the security of the whole network.

Reliable switches that offer free, ongoing technical support complemented by a long warranty period present significant advantages for network administrators who want the lowest TCO for their projects.

After considering the life cycle of a project and the hidden costs that can be incurred throughout this life cycle, it is clear that multiple factors must be considered when determining the direct and indirect costs of an entire system. Of course network administrators never can be 100% sure what the future needs of an IIoT network are, but having a full understanding of the six stages described above ensures that network administrators are more knowledgeable about which devices have the best chances of lowering the TCO throughout the duration of a project.

-Richard Wood is a product marketing manager for Moxa Inc.