Product Selection for Business vs. Process Control System Networks

While certain networking products can provide Swiss Army knife level versatility, it is better to understand that proper manufacturer and model selection is application specific. One of the high-level applications for which we commonly consult is product selection for business vs. process control networks. Customers want to know whether they can use the same manufacturer for both networks. Based on our years of experience in multiple vertical markets from consumer products, oil & gas, manufacturing, to water/wastewater we offer the following food for thought.

FACT: The requirements for a business and process control system (PCS) network are vastly different. 

Uptime: Generally speaking, organizations want all networks to have high uptime but relatively speaking this can mean two very different things. An organization generally tolerates a business network printer being unavailable for 5 to 30 seconds but can't tolerate similar outages for a PLC on a PCS network as PCS downtime has a much higher associated cost. Questions include:

"How quickly should the network recover after restoration of power following an outage?"
[Consider equipment start-up/boot times between manufacturers.]

"How quickly should the network recover in the event of a network cable or segment failure?" 
[Consider equipment redundancy protocol offerings between manufacturers.]

"How quickly do we need an operational replacement device if one undergoes a hardware failure?" 
[Consider availability of fast device replacement options such as USB between manufacturers.]

Ultimately “How does Vendor A vs. Vendor B handle the above?”

Environment: Business network equipment is often housed in environmentally/temperature-controlled areas while PCS network equipment is installed closer to the process and therefore exposed to higher temperatures, vibration, EMI/RFI, and possibly classified areas etc. In other cases, however, there is a desire to share a trunk of fibers, mounting enclosures, etc. and other network assets between business and PCS networks at common locations. Questions include:

“What environment is this equipment going to be installed?” 
[Consider equipment environmental specifications between manufacturers.]

Ultimately “How does Manufacturer A vs. Manufacturer B handle the above?”

Devices and Services: Business networks typically serve laptops, desktops, servers, printers, phones and their associated services and protocols (web-browsing, e-mail, file-sharing, voice, video) while PCS networks typically serve PLCs, VFDs, instrumentation, workstations and servers and their associated services and protocols (real-time control, alarming, monitoring, visualization, data acquisition, historical data collection). Both network types often serve vendor-proprietary protocols either as a requirement or as an option to ease deployment or offer optimized performance. The need to facilitate these specific protocols must be considered when selecting network hardware. Questions include:

“What devices and services/protocols need to be accommodated?” 
[Consider equipment inclusion/support for required protocols between manufacturers.]

Ultimately “How does Manufacturer A vs. Manufacturer B handle the above?”

Ownership/Maintenance/Management: This topic is often the most important of the bunch. Questions include:

"Who will be responsible for the day-to-day management, monitoring, configuration changes, device replacement, etc?" 
[Consider capability of existing personnel and cost to train personnel to operate equipment between manufacturers.]

Ultimately “How competent is the maintenance personnel responsible with Manufacturer A vs. Manufacturer B or how easily can we train them on A vs. B?”

Naturally the answer to the "Who" question at a facility is often different for business network vs. PCS network. In either case, consideration should be given to whether the personnel responsible for maintenance have sufficient understanding, training, confidence, and competence to maintain the network. In facilities where the business network is maintained by traditional IT and PCS network is maintained by controls engineers, this issue is the main reason we see and promote brands like Hirschmann and Moxa for PCS and brands like Cisco for business. It is much easier for a controls engineer with limited networking experience to learn to maintain Hirschmann/Moxa (due to their user-friendly Graphical User Interface) whereas a traditional IT engineer is often more familiar and comfortable maintaining Cisco from their experience in commercial applications.

Let's wrap up with two final questions.

“Can I use the same manufacturer for business and process control?”

Maybe, maybe not; it depends on the results of the analysis from the above. But don't worry...

“Can I use the same VENDOR for business and process control?”

Absolutely! INS can help you with all these considerations via pre-sales support, Industrial IT consulting and design, Industrial IT Training, and even Industrial IT audits of existing facilities. Give us a call to discuss your needs!

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