How to Eliminate IT Support For Your OT Networks

Control engineers and those in the manufacturing and the process industries worry about three things taking down their processes: the machines going down, the programmable logic controllers (PLC) or devices going down, and the network going down.

Although today’s information technology (IT) switches are as complex and powerful as PCs, they have some of the drawbacks of PCs including long boot times, “command line interface” configurations, anti-virus updates, required reboots, IP addressing and either training or IT support. While these “features” are acceptable on the business network, we shouldn’t have to accept them on the control network. But what other options do we have?

This is where Phoenix Digital networking modules come in. As part of the Rockwell Automation Technology Partner program, these purpose-built Ethernet networking devices were designed specifically for control engineers to network PLCs and Ethernet devices in manufacturing and process environments. Making the solution even easier, the Phoenix Digital networking modules are inserted directly into ControlLogix ®, CompactLogix™, SLC-500, PLC-5 PLC chassis and one DIN rail-mountable option for use with other PLCs, enabling you to use them for networking any PLC or Ethernet field device.

Too Much Complexity

Managing switch network complexities is a constant source of concern for operational technology (OT) staff. The command line interface required for each switch introduces many problems like the possibility of error and the need to test every line of code with each change. There are also security concerns. If you can manipulate the coding, that means someone else can — maybe for malicious reasons. Switch networks also require regular software updates and security patches. All these concerns complicate the daily operations for OT staff that simply want to keep production systems running.

A Perfect Fit For Plant Environments

Phoenix Digital networking modules overcome these challenges. These devices are suitable for networking anything from the PLC and below — e.g., networking PLCs to PLCs or networking PLCs to Ethernet devices. Ideal for control networks, these modules power up and are ready to use in about 10 seconds. Although 10 seconds can feel like an eternity for control engineers, in the world of IT it’s not uncommon to wait several minutes for switches to boot up after a power outage or blip. You can power Phoenix Digital networking modules with 120 VAC or 24 VDC — both of which are commonly found on the plant floor. And, they’re rated for Class 1 Div 2 (all groups) for use in hazardous locations.

At the plant floor level, you might have multiple protocols in place beyond Ethernet/TCP, including PROFINET, Modbus TCP and Ethernet/IP. Phoenix Digital networking modules can transport all these protocols — all at the same time. 

Unlock 100 Percent of the Network

One of the most powerful features of Phoenix Digital networking modules is the fact that they don’t require any software configuration thanks to a patented embedded feature called packetization. You can think about packetization in this way: after the networking module is powered up, it automatically starts sending a train of empty cars across the network at full speed (1 gigabyte per second) to be filled with data. When the data becomes available, it is inserted into the car moving across the network, bringing many advantages to the control network:

  • Packet collisions are not possible.
  • Performance is guaranteed. The packets are guaranteed to arrive — almost within nanoseconds.
  • Since this patented process comes pre-configured, you don’t need any complicated quality of service configurations to achieve the maximum performance.
  • Since we’re filling empty “buckets” already traveling across the network, we can use every last available bucket without worrying about packet collision. In other words, we can utilize up to 100 percent of the network. For comparison, if you run a switch that utilizes 20 to 30 percent of the network, you can experience enough packet collisions to bring the network to its knees.

No IP Address, No Security Worries

Avoiding the security concerns associated with IT switches, Phoenix Digital networking modules don’t have IP addresses. Simply connect the networking modules to your devices, and they automatically start communicating without you having to configure anything. Without an IP address, the networking modules are invisible to attacks. And for industrial environments, these networking modules are linked by fiber optic cables, making them impervious to electromagnetic interference. They can also achieve long distances across campuses, tank farms and pipelines, avoiding grounding issues and the use of repeaters.

In addition, these networking modules include a proprietary, built-in redundant fiber ring versus a complicated device level ring. Together the redundancy and ring achieve a powerful level of fault tolerance. Even if you’re running video, you won’t notice any hesitation in the stream due to the packetization in the ring. And, because you don’t have to configure anything, the combination of the ring, redundancy and packetization process makes Phoenix Digital networking modules easy to use.

Ease of Setup and Maintenance

Here’s how setting up Phoenix Digital networking modules works. First, connect the redundant fiber to each networking module in a ring architecture. Next, connect your copper Ethernet field devices, power up the networking module, designate one networking module as the network master by setting one dip switch — and you’re all set. If a networking module fails, simply unplug it and install a new networking module. If that failed networking module was the master, simply set the dip switch, turn on the power and wait 10 seconds to boot up.

To learn more about these Ethernet networking devices, which create a true plug-and-play scenario that requires no IP addressing or programming, contact Phoenix Digital today.


Softing Inc.