Is your next automation controller an Ethernet switch?

  • February 03, 2014
  • Feature

By Bill Lydon, Editor

At the 2013 Rockwell Automation Fair, Cisco and Rockwell Automation representatives gave multiple presentations about the "Internet of Everything." The ideas presented by Cisco’s Rob Soderbery, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Enterprise Networking Group, about the future of leveraging embedded computing in Ethernet switches and routers were particularly interesting and thought provoking. Cisco’s Rick Esker, Sr. Director Industry Solutions Group, EcoSystems, in his keynote speech at the Rockwell Automation Process Solutions User Group (PSUG) conference also described how Cisco routers are becoming distributed embedded computer devices, intended to process and react to information from devices and sensors at the edge of the network. Cisco has hardened platforms with this capability in the market today.

IP to the Edge

The concept of all devices connected with IP has been growing over the last few years.  It has been described with names like "Internet of Things" and "Internet of Everything," and has roots in M2M (machine-to-machine) concepts. The goal is to provide frictionless communications and interaction from manufacturing field I/O (inputs/outputs), including sensors, actuators, analyzers, drives, vision, video, and robotics, to achieve increased manufacturing performance and flexibility using highly distributed control. This revolution will drive intelligence to the edge with the ultimate goal of all industrial devices supporting IP including field I/O. Wireless IP devices are already being used in manufacturing, including smartphone and tablets. The wireless sensor I/O open standards, WirelessHART, ISA100, and WIA-PA work with IP devices, support the latest IPv6 standards, and leverage larger address spaces and improved cyber security standards.

Cisco/Rockwell Automation Partnership

Rob Soderbery talked about the elements of the "Internet of Everything," including converged managed network, resilience, security, distributed intelligence, and application enablement. He predicted that the premise of the Internet of Everything has the potential to grow global corporate profits by 21% in the aggregate by 2022. Soderbery emphasized that Cisco’s strategy is to establish deep partnerships with strong companies that really understand their domains, and the Rockwell Automation relationship is a long-standing, strong relationship. Cisco sent more than 100 people to support the Rockwell Automation Fair this year. As Senior Vice President and General Manager of Cisco's Enterprise Networking Group, Soderbery oversees the strategy, engineering, and marketing direction of Cisco's networking technology for the enterprise. His organization is responsible for the core technologies that are critical to business customers. These include the Cisco Catalyst families of switches, enterprise routing, wireless networking, and solutions for all industry segments of the enterprise, industrial automation, small business, and emerging markets. Soderbery is responsible for more than $18 billion of product revenue.

Ethernet Switch Automation Controller

Soderbery discussed the idea of embedded computing in Ethernet switches in his keynote at Automation Perspectives, a media/analyst-only event. I had a follow-up conversation with Soderbery and Rockwell Automation’s Kevin Zaba, Vice President & General Manager of Control & Visualization Business. Soderbery said that Cisco’s 819 Integrated Services Router Family is an example of one of these products that come in hardened versions. They are a new breed of devices for machine-to-machine (M2M) applications, supporting the "Internet of Things." Applications can be run on this platform with code targeted to the CPU core. They also can provide a virtual environment for applications. Data analysis and automation control could be done in these routers, eliminating the controller. Soderberry described the vision of bringing sensor data directly to the router for local analysis and control right at the edge.

Thoughts & Observations

The embedding of real-time automation control in Ethernet routers is an idea that may be consistent with the trend (over the last several years) to embed PLC control engine software into motor drives, video cameras, and other devices to achieve more responsive control and economies of implementation. If the sensor and control elements become IP devices, automation controllers could simply become embedded code in routers and other network fabric devices, ultimately simplifying system architectures. Certainly router manufactures like Cisco have deep knowledge to also build cyber security into these devices.

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