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What Keeps Your Networks Up And Running?

As we transition from summer into fall, with winter right around the corner, how do your networks stay up and running even in extreme temperatures?

As we transition from summer into fall, with winter right around the corner, how do your networks stay up and running even in extreme temperatures? Andrew Bronson, Director of Connectivity Solutions for Sixnet, a provider of Ethernet switches and automation devices, discusses the technology behind industrial-grade Ethernet switches and how they stay up and running in harsh climate situations in this interview with sister publication Manufacturing Business Technology.

MBT: Could you give me a little bit of background on the industrial Ethernet switches and what they offer?

Bronson: Sixnet was really founded with a focus on the industrial automation space. We got into the industrial Ethernet switching in the late 1990s. We've been manufacturing industrial-grade Ethernet switching products for a good 12 years now and have gone through several iterations of that.

When it comes to hardening or designing an industrial-type switch versus what you would see in the enterprise or consumer marketplace, there are a couple of big differences you will see. Obviously, one is temperature range. A standard enterprise switch generally supports temperatures ranging from 0 degrees to 40 degrees centigrade. When you get into the industrial switch environment and we get into the extreme swings, the majority of our products all support anywhere from -40 centigrade to either 75 or 85 degrees centigrade. You're really looking at two or three times the temperature grade that you would get from a normal commercial type product.

There are different methods we use and different design ideas to be able to help do that. You need to take a look at some of the components that go in an industrial-grade or extended-range temperature switch. The components have to be extended temperature range as well. So a lot of the manufacturers of switch-basic products or physical interface-area products will have a commercial-grade product, a commercial-grade chipset, and they'll have an industrial-grade chipset. Of course we're using the extended temperature range components that go into these switches. In addition, you have to take a look at how you'd want to manage the heat in these devices. Because one of the big differences you'd generally find in industrial-grade products versus commercial-grade products is industrial-grade products do not use fans for cooling or dissipating the heat for these switches themselves. The reason that is because fans add a power draw, so they pull more power. Number two, anything that's moving inside the box, any mechanical component, is more subject to failure than something that is not moving. That's true for just about every machine in the world. So we take a look at it and design solutions. Primarily the way do it is through being very smart about how we conduct the heat away the PCB and the components on that PCB. Then the designs that we use for our cases, our enclosures, are also carefully designed to be able to conduct and move that heat away from the internal components inside of the box.

One of the other things you'll see is generally industrial-rated products will have some kind of ingress protection rating -- an IP 30, IP 40, or IP 50 rating -- or something like that, depending on where it is being used. Each number in that nomenclature is specific to something. When you talk about that first number, that's usually the protection from some type of solid object or materials. For example, an IP 0 would be no special protection, an IP 30 means it is going to protect the innards of the device from any solid object that is over 2.5 millimeters large. What we're talking about really comes down to if you have your case ventilated at all, what kinds of holes are there and can anything get into the switch, right? You get up into an IP 50 rating and that means they are actually protected against dust coming into the box or into the device itself. Dust and dirt is important because once it gets into the box, depending on what environment it is at, it can build up and increase the heat and make it harder for the heat to dissipate out of the box. The majority of our products are going to be IP 30, IP 40, or IP 50 rated. Now the second number in that is its protection against liquids. So the majority of our products aren't going to protect against liquids, nor are other products on the market. If you buy them specifically for outdoor use, then you'll see IP65s and IP67s. An IP67 you can actually submerge in one meter of water and it will not be affected at all.

Our primary design methodology is we're taking a look at the industrially-rated components, but also being smart on how we conduct that heat away from the board and out of that device. The other side of that is you have to be smart about how you design your power circuits because the colder it gets, the harder it is to go ahead and start one of these devices.

MBT: How long are these products guaranteed?

Bronson: We provide a five-year warranty on all of our Ethernet switching products. On top of that, we have products that have been in the field for all 12 years that we have been providing Ethernet switching products. We find that it is more a change in technology or a change in different types of operations or applications that people want to be running across their network forces a change in the infrastructure much more so than any type of failure or any type of problem with the switches out there. We've got products that have over 1 million hours mean time between failures. Generally, when stuff gets switched out, it is more along the lines that they need to upgrade to a faster Ethernet process.

MBT: What applications do these temperature-resistant, Industrial-grade Ethernet switches? From your perspective, what are some of the main applications you see these being used for?

Bronson: We see them used in several areas. You see them in manufacturing areas such as large warehouses or factory floors that are not air-conditioned. You have to have the ability to manage and monitor the automated machinery that's out there. Those are some of the key, primary areas you are seeing them deployed.

MBT: You mentioned these products have been out there for the past dozen years or so. What are some of the advancements that have been made technology-wise over the course of the last few years that have really kind of allowed them to be more reliable, more useful or more efficient?

Bronson: We are seeing advancements in how industrial networks are using more Ethernet everyday. By virtue of that, the switches themselves have got to go ahead and need to have more capabilities to be able to support multiple applications that are being used on a single infrastructure.

When you take a look at when Industrial Ethernet started getting used, you were interconnecting automation equipment and so you were interconnecting automation equipment and it was a network that had one singular purpose. As these Ethernet networks progress and as more and more different types of applications, such as environmental monitoring or video surveillance start to come out, you need to have more capability in your switches to be able to support multiple applications or multiple services across a single, physical infrastructure.

The advances I think you're seeing now in the industrial Ethernet space really are coming along in the areas of capability of these switches. There's more software and more quality of service-type solutions that are coming out on these, and now they're getting smarter. These switches are getting much smarter in being able to support a wider variety of applications and services.