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IT's critical role in industrial IoT

While the internet of things receives a great deal of attention these days, its vision may not become a reality for some time. My refrigerator is not connected to the internet, and I suspect that your refrigerator may not be internet-enabled either. However, there is a version of IoT that is happening now and is playing an important role in the manufacturing industry: the industrial IoT. Many see IIoT as the next major innovation in manufacturing, and it sometimes has different names — smart manufacturing, connected factory and Industry 4.0 are commonly used terms. While IIoT has many benefits, in order to be IIoT-ready, you need to have the right technology infrastructure in place first — and that means a critical role for networks.

The foundation: M2M communications

Traditionally, manufacturing environments consisted of older, legacy machines that were mechanically driven and did not have any type of network connectivity. Over time, these machines became more technologically advanced, but it was often in a more proprietary manner — they may have had their own communications protocols or systems. Now, machinery is becoming more network enabled so that data can be collected directly from them and they can be networked together to communicate in real time. This can be done either by wireless (cellular or wireless LAN) or wired (Ethernet) technology, and delivers machine-to-machine (M2M) communications. While M2M communications have been going on for some time, it is becoming more advanced and standards-based, leading to better interoperability and making communications faster and easier. The advancements in M2M are also helping to bring more and more machines and devices on the factory floor online.

Network infrastructure and industrial IoT

With a network-enabled factory floor, and more connected machines, data can now be collected from various machines and devices at a constant rate and be processed and analyzed. This data gathering and analysis is an important part of industrial IoT, it can help organizations figure out which machines are running at peak efficiency and what improvements can be made. Production systems can become more automated and flexible, and logistics can also be optimized. It can also help with predictive tasks such as forecasting and capacity planning, which also helps to improve efficiency, reduce waste and control costs. The manufacturing environment is now more connected, more data driven and more intelligent.

With the network infrastructure in place, there will be many devices and machines that are communicating and sharing data. This goes beyond traditional IT and office equipment and devices — switches, routers, wireless LANs, servers, printers, desk phones, etc. There could be factory production machines, valves and sensors from the factory floor that are also part of the network, making it larger and more complex. The challenge lies in monitoring all of these new devices, and possibility monitoring multiple facilities in different locations as part of the distributed enterprise. This is where network monitoring solutions can play a key role.

Network monitoring for distributed industrial networks

Network monitoring can provide a unified, single view of a broad range of machines and devices on the factory floor as well as more traditional IT-related devices. This can play an important role in monitoring the health and status of the network and its various components, and can assist in proactive planning for network capacity and security. This also can play a key role in the remote monitoring of distributed networks that may span multiple locations and facilities in an enterprise. Often, manufacturing facilities can be in remote locations that are connected to the network via cellular technology or a wide area network (WAN).

Selecting the right network monitoring tool

When selecting a network monitoring system, it is important to have a solution that enables centralized, holistic monitoring of the network in a single screen view, often called “a single pane of glass.” Not only does centralized monitoring take into account the relationship between different devices, it is much easier to look at one screen than trying to look from screen to screen at separate systems.

Also, if you are in an environment that spans different locations, make sure that the solution has the ability to monitor multi-site, distributed networks. You want a solution that is designed and built to match the size of your organization and its network. Also, make sure that the solution is practical and simple to use, with an approach that is as “lean” as possible — little waste and minimal cost. This is especially important for midsized businesses that may have small IT staffs. You do not want a solution that will cause extra burdens on the staff by complicating implementations, or by being difficult to use, causing work- and cost-intensive additional tasks.

In all, industrial IoT can deliver powerful benefits, but the technology foundation needs to be put in place first to make sure that you have the communications infrastructure that IIoT will run on. Creating this infrastructure involves a variety of components — network-ready devices and machines, LAN, WAN or cellular infrastructure and network monitoring — to help make IIoT a reality. Once in place, the infrastructure will deliver the benefits of IIoT, and network monitoring can help preserve network integrity to keep the benefits rolling along.

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