Think back on your facility’s Ethernet network five or six years ago. What did you have, maybe a dozen Ethernet devices? A few more? Maybe you were even sharing Ethernet with the office network.
Think about it now – odds are, your plant probably has a lot more. More than you ever imagined in fact. Maybe you’re even running out of possible addresses. It’s not just your plant – it’s everywhere.
Ethernet-based communications have grown as more and more devices get connected. Much like your home where maybe you used to have a couple computers.
Then you got a smartphone, a tablet as a gift one year, your family all got smartphones, your TV is on Wi-fi, your smart thermostat, your doorbell… next thing you know, you’ve got a dozen plus devices and adding more.
Has the same thing happened in your plant? You had a PLC, a drive, an HMI. Now you have 15 PLCs, HMIs, scales, measuring devices, cameras, barcode scanners, label printers, and the list goes on. A single machine might have 20-30 addresses. Not to mention now they might be uplinked to servers sitting somewhere pulling statistical data every 50ms.
The story is the same. We started using Ethernet and “I need a couple addresses,” turned to “I need my own network,” to “I need more switches to connect all my other switches…” What will the next step be?
More importantly, what happens now if you’ve started to lose track of what you’ve installed?
And the biggest question, “When intermittent issues start – why?”
Do you have a way of figuring it out?
It is standard in the IT world, so why haven’t we adopted it and what does Network Management mean? Network Management software is software that sits on your network, gathering information, monitoring, and scanning it constantly. It will display information graphically in an easy to understand color coded manner to tell you exactly what is happening on the network.
It will show exactly what item has the address 192.168.132.14. It’ll tell you who makes it and it might even show you a picture of what it is. It’ll tell you how it’s doing – is it communicating to whatever else it’s supposed to be with the minimal jitter and minimal latency? It will even show you some KPIs of your network and let you know where budding problems exist (and you WILL have them, guaranteed. You just probably never even knew it because everything seemed to work okay until you added that one additional device).
Not only that, with a little modification, some packages will even show your network topology (where all those devices that make up your network live) and the health of the connections against a layout of your plant floor.
This is important. There are many Network Management software suites on the market today – both free and subscription. The reality is that most of these though are designed for Windows, Mac, or Linux based OSs running on a PCs.
When you sit in front of your computer at home or at work and connect to a webpage somewhere, how often does it update? It creates the connection and transfers the contents of the webpage and that’s that. The next time you do something with it is when you click – seconds, minutes later? Our environment is different and thus needs a different network management solution.
A typical automation device has an RPI of 20ms. This means that a packet is being requested from the PLC every 20ms to update. In most cases, if it doesn’t get a response across the network within 100ms, it will result in a timeout and a loss of data or a connection. A solution designed for a typical IT Department’s PC network doesn’t give any regard to network sensitivity – therefore these tools often aggressively poll a network at a high frequency and volume. If it results in someone’s webpage being is slow to load, not a big deal. However, something at that frequency that can bring an industrial network to a crawl and in the worst case, a dead stop from multiple timeouts.
Those PC network scanning and monitoring tools should be avoided for this reason; particularly if the whole point was to diagnose an intermittent network timeout in the first place! So what should you use then?
You may already be familiar with Panduit’s IntraVUE product, which is arguably the ‘original’ Network Management software specifically designed for industrial networks. IntraVUE has been popular for multiple reasons. It polls the network very deliberately to preserve industrial automation network communications and it is vendor agnostic. This makes it versatile in a mixed-vendor environment. IntraVUE also carries with it a powerful reporting tool which generates a plain-English report, solidifying their focus on helping you optimize traffic and data flow. But, the trade-off of is that it cannot manage aspects of vendor hardware that is specific to that vendor, such as configuration.
Recently, Rockwell Automation launched its own Network Management software – FactoryTalk (FT) Network Manager. This solution is ideal for users of the Rockwell Automation Stratix managed switch platform and Cisco managed switches, along with other Rockwell Automation hardware.
FT Network Management Software will perform many of the same roles as any Network Management software – discovery of assets on the plant floor, construction of network topology, identification and monitoring of those assets for troubleshooting, etc. But, it also offers the ability to configure and deploy new Rockwell & Cisco devices. This extended capability allows for uploading configurations to multiple devices simultaneously.
If you are no stranger to the frustrations of opening individual device managers to perform changes, you may really appreciate this ability to simplify configuration and deployment. Plus, there are multiple dashboard views depending on inventory, topology, device managers, managed switch, alarms, and end devices.
Because it’s a Rockwell Automation product, the end device view also allows greater insight into Rockwell-specific technologies – what Ethernet modules are installed in a Logix chassis, their serial numbers, and its version. Future releases promise Device Level Ring (DLR) awareness plus network mapping through the chassis of Logix. Released in April 2018, if you are a heavy Rockwell user and have an Ethernet backbone, this is worth your time to look into.
Network Management and visualization is not a new concept but given the growth in Ethernet device networking for the plant, it should be considered a standard usage software at this point. It is standard in the traditional IT space, so let’s learn from them.
The good news too – is that many of these packages, including FT Network Manager from Rockwell are now subscription based. This means you don’t need to commit to a $25k piece of software, you can buy a 1-year subscription for $2-5k, try it, and see if your plant can’t live without it.
You can’t fix what you don’t know you have.
Know what you have and be prepared for what’s to come.