ApplicationsMarch 9, 2020

How to optimize networks for extreme conditions

Abstract background

From remote oil rigs to electrical substations, industry runs on data. Interruptions to flow of information can create unexpected downtime and result in costly outages. This article explores ways to optimize networks for maximum uptime in the face of challenging and varied environmental operating conditions.

Commercial-grade Ethernet switches have proven to be especially vulnerable in industrial environments because they are not engineered to withstand the fluctuating temperatures, humidity, vibration, dust and other conditions common to remote environments. Just as ice formation can stop the flow of a river, extreme temperatures can stop the flow of data from remote operations. Because modern facilities and control systems run on information, even brief interruptions to data flow can introduce significant risk to operations.

Commercial-grade Ethernet switches have proven to be vulnerable because they are not engineered to withstand the fluctuating temperatures, humidity, vibration, dust and other conditions common to remote environments. Instead of routing data, these switches often experience failures such as shutdowns when faced with extreme conditions. Designed for climate-controlled data centers and wiring closets, these switches should not be used outdoors.

Extreme conditions don’t need to make the network go down. Today, thousands of industrial-grade Ethernet switches are performing reliably in remote locations. Keeping switches and systems functioning requires an understanding of how extreme conditions affect performance, knowledge of the different types of switches and their limitations, and an understanding of features required to mitigate changing conditions.

Extreme conditions impact

As an Ethernet switch approaches the limits of its operating temperature, it starts slowing down and may drop packets. When an Ethernet switch gets too cold or hot, components simply fail to function. Data can’t be communicated or stored, blocking visibility into operations and hampers control systems. The value of the data managed by Ethernet switches in remote environments is not only the data itself, but the crucial role it plays in supporting automated network systems. Interrupted flow of data may cause networking equipment, control software, and even security and safety systems to shut down unexpectedly.

Network failures pose a significant threat to safety, productivity and profitability. System crashes can create a dangerous lack of visibility into operations and can shut down safety systems. They also create a financial liability, since emergency repairs cost much more than planned preventive maintenance, especially in remote locations. Failures also carry a high productivity price. The costs could be even higher at offshore rigs, wind farms, pipelines and other work environments where skilled maintenance technicians and spare parts may be miles away. Failures are problematic, but they are also highly preventable. Network failures are extremely rare when the Ethernet switch is properly matched to the operating environment. Making the match requires an understanding of two types of switches— commercial and industrial—and the limitations of each.

Commercial-grade switches

Commercial-grade Ethernet switches are typically used in climate-controlled environments such as offices where there is little exposure to temperature extremes, shock, vibration and electrical noise that can impact performance. Commercial switches are typically rated to operate in temperatures ranging from 0° to 45°C (32° to 113°F), which is an important consideration when selecting switches for remote operations. They also usually require on-board fans.

Industrial-Grade switches

Industrial-grade Ethernet switches reliably perform in temperatures ranging from -40° to 85°C (-40° to 185°F), which means they work in extreme environments difficult for people to access. Industrial switches are an essential part of automated control systems. The chart above presents a comparison of the specifications of both commercial and industrial switches. Industrial switches, for example, are capable of operating for 20 to 30 years in the field, while the MTBF (Mean Time Between Failure) for commercial switches is often less than 3 three years.

Preventing problems

Many industrial switches offer diagnostic capabilities that help prevent downtime by proactively issuing alerts before falling temperatures and other extreme conditions can cause a problem.

One optional feature is for the switch to regularly send packets of diagnostic data that can be integrated into a management system or viewed on a human machine interface (HMI). The person or system responsible for monitoring the switch can view port-by-port data flow to easily see the slowdowns that may indicate an impending problem. More advanced switches offer embedded browser functionality that provides more powerful diagnostic capabilities and enables remote troubleshooting.

Data can be viewed and processed in real time, and also shared with databases and other applications for analysis and maintenance planning. These capabilities are native to many industrial switches. Similar functionality is available for commercial switches, but complex configuration and programming is required.

Use of industrial switches

While organizations can’t depend on good weather and perfect environmental conditions, they can rely on high performance and increased uptime when the proper industrial- grade Ethernet switches and other components are selected for the job.

The key is to use rugged products that are engineered for the environment and can be managed remotely and proactively to prevent problems, regardless of operating conditions. Industrial Ethernet switches are engineered to get the job done even when conditions are uncomfortable for workers and unmanageable for commercial-grade products.

Application report by Red Lion Controls