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New Rules For Industrial Wireless

By Ian McPherson, VP of Solutions Architecture, Apprion, and President, Wireless Industrial Networking Alliance By following four simple wireless rules of engagement you can deploy and maintain a scalable, bullet-proof industrial wireless network.

Industrial wireless is becoming a strong competitive advantage for manufacturers with distributed, large-scale footprints. But to be effective, wireless solutions must be an open, integrated, secure and scalable system for monitoring, managing, and securing many types of wireless devices and applications.

In addition to the technical complexities of wireless signals, facilities must also address the environmental challenges of implementing technology in industrial sites. Many a plant manager discovered the hard way that wireless devices developed for office settings do not survive very long in industrial environments.

In truth, it's actually not that difficult to "harden" and harness the power of the wireless network. And the investments are low compared to the payoff.

Wireless Is Different
Wireless signals differ greatly from wired communication. Unlike wired networks, which can be closed by function or protocol and even completely physically isolated, wireless signals must be managed and airwave traffic must be controlled by agreements and rules. Often, there are a lot of holes and information gaps in unmanaged wireless networks that have grown organically without a unified plan.

Furthermore, every wireless device is run on proprietary software. Although each may include a troubleshooting guide, many resolution paths point to some unknown device on the network, which is likely to point to another unknown device. In an unmanaged wireless network, the end result can often be plagued by holes and information gaps.

There are four simple wireless rules of engagement that will ensure you can deploy and maintain a scalable, bullet-proof industrial wireless network.

Rule #1:  Centralize, Command and Control
Because the radio spectrum (the virtual "wires" that connect devices) is both finite and publicly accessible, centralized command-and-control is even more important for wireless networks.

From a technical and practicable standpoint, industry has only two options. The first is to standardize on a single vendor's family of pre-integrated products. The other is to implement an open and standards-based wireless network management platform.

Standardizing on a single vendor involves several risks including the inability to select best of breed devices and potential obsolescence as protocols evolve.

Assuming the goal is to use the air waves for reliable communications in industrial settings, there is really only one strategy: Implement a centralized command-and-control infrastructure that manages all wireless resources (devices from multiple vendors) effectively.

Rule #2:  Deploy the Right Equipment
As mentioned earlier, industrial wireless requires industrial-strength equipment. Wireless devices are often deployed in very remote and hard-to-reach locations where they must work reliably and without much human intervention.

The best suited for the job are rugged, wireless gateways that are purpose-built for industrial environments and can operate in locations where power is limited and resist extreme weather, temperature, humidity, and other industrial hazards.                     
Consistent with the strategy of implementing a centralized command-and-control infrastructure that manages all wireless resources effectively, these should also be open, standards-based, secure and extensible systems. Often they include a blade architecture that allows them to manage and control wireless devices from different vendors, using different protocols, and operating on different radio frequencies.

Rule #3:  Gather and Use Intelligence -- Continuously
Monitoring and quantifying the ways in which wireless networks are performing is another key consideration. It’s important to be able to measure the availability of tributary and backhaul networks and to be able to produce summary and detailed availability metrics. These metrics should be captured and reported in different ways, such as by device, network, vendor, process, and so on.

When you obtain and can correlate information related to all wireless network resources, you have network intelligence. The important thing to keep in mind is that wireless network resources include all physical devices, the radio spectrum itself, and currently available bandwidth. Network intelligence gives you the information you need for a bullet-proof wireless network. With historical data you can tune and optimize resource allocations. With near real-time data you can correct anomalies and identify and respond to threats.

Rule #4:  Train Properly -- Daily Routines and Emergency Response Maneuvers
In addition to being rugged and adaptable, industrial wireless networks must be "trained" and ready to execute specific routines and maneuvers.

The most comprehensive industrial network applications include data services, workflow, security monitoring and maintenance, and application integration across wireless plant networks. Here are some of the many tactical jobs that can be addressed:

Defend the Network:  Authenticate and authorize known devices; detect rogue and unknown devices; encrypt messages; and validate message deliveries.

Enforce Policies: Enable, restrict, meter, prioritize and route access to the backhaul wireless network based on set policies.

Respond to Emergencies: In the event of a plant emergency, smart network applications route traffic and turn devices on or off.

Maintain and Update: Over time, vendors will release firmware and software updates. As these are released, you will want to be able to close known security gaps quickly, and to know exactly what devices are on your network

We took a look at the basic communication difference between wired and wireless networks, the need to manage wireless signals and the necessity to employ a wireless network management strategy. We also considered the additional issues industry faces, including extreme operating environments, remote locations, and potentially limited power supplies.

Despite the challenges, by following four simple rules of engagement, you can deploy and maintain a scalable, bullet-proof industrial wireless network.

Apprion provides industrial facilities with reliable and secure wireless networks, applications, and services. For more information, visit