Conceived over four decades ago as an inexpensive local area network (LAN) technology, Ethernet has come a long way from its humble origins. Ethernet is now the dominant standard network protocol to deliver wired and wireless high-bandwidth communications services – voice, data, video, and Internet traffic – in most of the world’s wide area networks (WANs). In the words of a recent IDG white paper, Ethernet has gained “world domination by being better, faster and cheaper than other network protocols.” We continue to see that its high performance, versatility, ease of use, manageability and lower operating costs make Ethernet a compelling “language” to replace legacy or non-standard networking protocols in many emerging applications, such as Industrial-IoT.
Ethernet’s growth as a networking backbone can be traced to the late 1990s, with Enterprise LANs among the initial adopters. Carrier networks were the next to migrate in the 2000s, when Ethernet supplanted legacy protocols like ATM, Frame Relay, PDH, and SONET/SDH. And now it’s Industrial-IoT’s turn.
These networks, which today comprise areas like industrial process control, factory automation, smart-grid energy distribution, and transportation, are rapidly growing and evolving. We also see that they’re increasingly transitioning to standards-based Ethernet. Over time, these networks will expand exponentially, connecting billions of “things” in both consumer and industrial applications. Key to making this possible are the growth in machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, the acceleration of wireless technology, as well as increased and improved sensor technology.
Following a similar pattern to other major networks, Ethernet is supplanting legacy Industrial-IoT networking technologies like EtherCAT, HART, ControlNet, Fieldbus and PROFINET. Aside from Ethernet being “better, faster, and cheaper” than these non-standard network protocols, its versatility makes the business case even more convincing. Over time, Ethernet technology has advanced in multiple ways, enabling its seamless WAN operation and ability to handle specific industry requirements such as quality-of-service, network synchronization and high availability. It just so happens that these requirements are also critical must haves in industrial-IoT applications.
In 2015, we’ll see Ethernet evolve again to handle another highly specific requirement needed in Industrial-IoT networks: deterministic performance. Basically, determinism translates to something specific happening in a network in a predictable timeframe. In an Ethernet network, that means knowing what time it is at every network element, in order to confirm that packets are delivered on time.
We’re not talking about your connected thermostat or Fitbit needing this level of performance. Where deterministic Ethernet will play a huge role is in mission-critical applications, like an emergency shutdown system at a nuclear power plant or the braking system on an autonomous car. For these applications, the time windows in which packet delivery and acceptance happen must be strictly guaranteed. This is the focus of the IEEE 802.1 TSN (time sensitive networking) standards work.
Specifically with industrial networking requirements in mind, IEEE 802.1 TSN is targeting parameters such as:
- Worst-case delays of under four seconds per hop (at 1 Gbps for short messages);
- Alternative paths and multiple clock paths with instantaneous switchover and redundancy via multiple simultaneous streams for improved network robustness; and
- Improved scalability for large installations by reducing traffic management needed for bandwidth reservations and configuration.
Ultimately, this extension to Ethernet will enable precise awareness of time in Ethernet switches, so that they’re able to transfer packets out of a queue at an exact time or within a particular timespan. We’ll see deterministic Ethernet’s significance in real-time factory automation and industrial process control systems. As noted above, this deterministic performance will also be highly applicable to other mission-critical systems such as transportation control networks and automotive applications like advanced driver assist, collision avoidance, or lane departure warning systems. In the not-too-distant future, we expect the automotive industry to fully embrace Ethernet as well. In the meantime, watch for Ethernet domination in the Industrial IoT.
About the author
Martin Nuss is Vice President, Technology and Strategy and Chief Technical Officer at Vitesse Semiconductor. Dr. Nuss has over 25 years of technical and management experience and is a recognized industry expert in Ethernet technology including timing and synchronization for public and private communications networks. Dr. Nuss serves on the board of directors for the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) and is a fellow of the Optical Society of America and IEEE member. He holds a doctorate in applied physics from the Technical University in Munich, Germany.
Filed Under: M2M (machine to machine)