Is your “shadow network" in place?

HART, a kind of analog/digital hybrid, was one of the first and simplest.  It’s widely used today, though mostly in its 4-20mA form. HART was soon eclipsed by “fieldbus” resulting, during the 1990s, in the “fieldbus wars”.

Many, many years of in-fighting proved only that the market can be the best decider of these things. A variety of networks was the result and we’ve learned to live with the consequences. By the year 2000, Industrial Ethernet was following in fieldbus’s footsteps, in an almost identical number of variants. We’ve learned to live with that too. 

Fifteen years on, Ethernet remains the main networking candidate for automation plants. Yes alternatives like wireless and GB Ethernet have appeared but they are really “sub-set” solutions. Some newcomers have turned up - IO-Link for example – but not much more progress seems to be possible at the Ethernet level.


But, technology can’t be stopped. So what’s next for networks?

The obvious answer is the Industrial Internet. But is that a new network?  No it isn’t; it’s more an extension of Ethernet, and it offers a way of communicating with the cloud and delivering a higher level of functionality. It’s commonly referred to today as the Industrial Internet of Things, or IIoT.

IIoT relies on the plant Ethernet as much as any control or monitoring system. But it does so in a fresh and interesting way. For instance it is happy working with almost any flavor of Industrial Ethernet (and probably fieldbuses too in the future). Hence it will be the first great leveller of network playing fields for 30 years. Think of it as a single standard if you like. I prefer to think of it as the first “shadow network”.

The precision, time-critical performance of real time Ethernet occupies only a part of a network’s activity. There are other periods that can be utilized for non-time-critical functions. They have been for years, for example in configuration. This is a hidden, “shadow network” supporting IIoT with lean protocols designed specifically for transferring simple data at high speed into the cloud.

Importantly, it’s not just open to the big automation vendors. With cloud applications burgeoning, many offered “as a service” paid for on an as-used basis, an IIoT future is available to every OEM and end-user, however large or small. 

It’s potentially disruptive for the majors of course, but it means IIoT is an attractive option for anyone brave enough to grasp the opportunities now.


It’s a time for fresh thinking, and new business strategies for vendors and users will be an outcome.  Important for small vendors particularly is the chance to install products on an as-used basis – the so-called “Equipment as a Service” scenario in which the end user never actually buys a device; he simply uses it while the device vendor monitors its performance. This lets the vendor refine products and performance as time goes by and supports extra functionality (such as predictive maintenance) that the plant operator need not worry about.

Yes there are challenges to face and plenty of questions to resolve. For example, what happens to all your data once it’s in the cloud? Who owns it? What about security?  Also, what does my data mean? And, how best can I use it?

Industry 4.0 and the concept of Cyber Physical Systems (CPS) are an enticing way our IIoT data may soon be used in manufacturing. Another is Artificial Intelligence (AI) services that are bringing predictive maintenance programs (and much more) within reach of even the smallest machine builders.

IBM’s Deep Blue overcame the world’s best human players at chess some time back. More recently, Google’s AlphaGO faced the world’s best GO! player, and won! IBM’s Watson is making headlines today in automation, and major IT suppliers – long seen as expensive, proprietary-solution driven providers - are moving rapidly to provide cost-effective IIoT packages suiting all pockets and needs, however modest. 

Despite all the “intelligence” in the world however, none of these opportunities would exist if it were not for the “shadow network”.  A sad truth is that digital networks are still not used everywhere. Anyone stuck in an analog world should look carefully at what they might be missing. Without a “shadow network” to get data into the cloud and back, IIoT will remain closed and all those opportunities may stay unavailable!


First published in: InTech Magazine July/August