What is an Ethernet Industrial Switch

Ethernet industrial switches are used where Ethernet local area networks are needed for industrial applications where physical & environmental robustness, with electrical reliability are essential.

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As the name indicates an Ethernet industrial switch is an Ethernet switch that is used for industrial applications.

Ethernet has become the most widely used standard for local area network and also wide area, WAN network communications. It provides fast reliable data communications, and the standard is always being advanced to meet the latest needs.

Accordingly where good communication is required within an industrial setting such as an industrial process plant, etc, Ethernet provides an ideal basis, and as part of this, industrial switches are needed to set up the data network. Accordingly Ethernet has become the main communications standard for industrial control.

Industrial Ethernet switches feature carrier grade Ethernet performance and are able to withstand the harsh environments encountered within industrial environments as well as supporting various protocols to ensure the reliability is accurately maintained and monitored.

What is industrial Ethernet

Very fundamentally there is no difference between what may be termed office Ethernet and Industrial Ethernet - both acts as switches for Ethernet data.

Essentially, Industrial Ethernet is Ethernet that has been applied to an industrial environment. This requires a variety of changes to the form of Ethernet used for commercial or office Ethernet.

There are several differences of industrial Ethernet when compared to standard Ethernet, and this extends to the equipment used and this is the reason why industrial switches are needed.

Some of the main areas of difference are detailed below:

  • Rugged cables & connectors:   In view of the fact that industrial Ethernet is required to work in harsh environments, aspects such as the cables and connectors need to be made to a much higher standard. This reflects also into the connectors used on industrial switches and other industrial Ethernet equipment.

    As a result of the much tougher environment, heavier lock mechanisms are needed, and sealed connectors are often essential for some applications n harsh environments.

    The cables also differ from the normal commercial Ethernet. Even the cables required for light duty industry applications has a tougher jacketing than regular Ethernet cables. For the is even tougher dependent upon the particular application.

  • Harsh environments:   Enterprise or home of small office switches operate in dry, temperature-controlled environments. However, their industrial relations might be deployed in one of a variety of harsh environments that would not be suitable for a standard Ethernet Wide temperature ranges, dusty warehouses, an environment with vibration, and many more issues. Factory floors can also be very unforgiving for many items of electronic equipment. Also aspects like deployment in an unprotected environment with a corrosive atmosphere even like one close to the sea, possibly even a waterproof switch. Some may even have limited airflow and as a result they need to be air cooled. As a result of these environments, industrial Ethernet switches find a large number of uses.

  • Determinism:   This is a particularly important factor for industrial Ethernet. Determinism in Ethernet removes the randomness in the time delay of sending messages. On standard Ethernet there can be delays in frames reaching their destination due to loading, queuing, etc. Industrial Ethernet applications require the frames to require at specific times - typically communication needs to be real time. Real time or deterministic information transfer is often a major factor when deciding whether Industrial Ethernet is required or not.

  • Use of specialised protocols:   Although the basic Ethernet frames and structure are used, but other specialised protocols are used in conjunction with it.

    Some of the Industrial Ethernet protocols enable the Ethernet communications to be correctly sent and received, and also sent and received on time when the data is needed to perform a specific operation - in other words so that they are deterministic.

From this, it can be seen that there are some significant differences between the standard Ethernet switches and their industrial relations.

What is different about an industrial switch

Industrial switches differ in a variety of ways to the normal Ethernet switches. It is not just that they are built to higher standards, and they have a generally higher environmental specification, there are also a few other ways in which these Ethernet industrial switches differ.

There a many differences between ordinary office Ethernet switches and industrial switches. Some may appear to be relatively minor, whereas others are more fundamental.

Some of the main attributes of industrial Ethernet switches are given below:

  • Remote management & control:   In view of the fact that most industrial switches need to be able to operate in exactly the manner needed fort he given situation, industrial switches tend to be managed switches. There are several ways in which they can be programmed and managed.

  • Environmental aspects:   Whilst office Ethernet switches normally operate within a benign and relatively controlled environment, for industrial switches, this is not the case. They can be located in many positions in an industrial plant and they could be subject to a variety of relatively harsh environments in terms of temperature, dust, humidity, etc.

  • EMC:   As an industrial Ethernet switch could be located out on an industrial plant, it is quite likely that it will be exposed to relatively high levels of electromagnetic interference. As spikes from motors, etc could cause issues with the data communications, a good level of resilience to electromagnetic interference is essential.

  • Industrial switch power supplies:   Commercial Ethernet switches normally operate within an environment where key elements of a local area network are protected from power failures, etc by a suitable backup, and those which are not so key will go down if the power fails. In general industrial switch power supplies have dual-power backups to ensure continued operation.

  • Mechanical robustness:   As many switches will operate in a variety of areas, they need to be resilient aspects like shock, and vibration as well as being resilient to a rough handling etc. Not only does the construction need to be robust, but so do the connectors.

Managed and unmanaged switches

As with standard Ethernet switches, the industrial switches are also available in managed and unmanaged versions. When selecting an industrial Ethernet switch for any applications it is necessary to decide which type is needed.

  • Unmanaged switches:   An unmanaged network switch is the most common form of Ethernet switch. This type of Ethernet switch is design to be simply plugged into the network and then operate without any manual configuration. Unmanaged switches are typically for basic connectivity and they are often used in home or small office networks or wherever a few more Ethernet ports are needed, at a desk, in a lab, in a conference room, etc.

  • Managed switches:   Managed switches give greater security with more features and flexibility because they can be configured to custom-fit the network. With this greater control, it is possible to better protect the network and improve the quality of service for those who access the network. The traffic can be prioritised so that the available bandwidth, etc is allocated to a given application, etc in the best way.

Difference between layer 2 and layer 3 switches

In many of the specifications and datasheets for industrial switches, reference will be made to layer 2 and layer 3 switches. It is important to know the differences when making a choice of the right industrial switch for a given applications.

  • Layer 2 switch:   This type of switch can only switch packets from one port to another.

  • Layer 3 switch:   This form of switch can both switch and route.

Routing is not possible in Layer 2 switching, which means that devices can communicate within the same network. In Layer 3 switching, devices can communicate inside and outside the network.

Industrial switch management

Non-industrial switches may come as either unmanaged or managed. The simpler switches are unmanaged, and are much cheaper, but where more serious use is required, managed Ethernet switches are needed.

The situation is similar for industrial switches where both managed and unmanaged versions are available.

Unmanaged industrial switches provide a cost-effective being durable in harsh environments, and can be used to connect a number of devices to the network very easily because they are "plug-and-play" and they are ideal where no network expert is present for the configuration and implementation processes.

These unmanaged switches operate as transparent devices to most industrial protocols, and this removes the issues of compatibility. A further advantage is that they usually have a smaller form factor, and as a result they can be installed very easily in control cabinets.

The biggest disadvantage of an unmanaged switches is its lack of ability to pass on information via communication. If a communication failure occurs on the unmanaged switch it could go unnoticed. This could result in increased downtime and could add to higher maintenance costs and lost production. Managed industrial Ethernet switches are also able to be configured to exactly what is needed, and where the IT expertise is available, they can be more effective.

There can be a variety of ways in which industrial Ethernet switches can be managed. Links can be provided in a variety of ways.

  • Serial link:   Some switches have a serial link over which they can be managed. This has the advantage of providing a different link in case of failures by which errors etc can be reported, but it is also another connection to be managed. Software and the serial data interface is also required for the controlling computer.

  • Via the Ethernet link:   The control and set up of the switch can also be undertaken via the existing Ethernet link. Normally specific control software or a web-style browser is used to set up the relevant parameters and monitor the performance.

The performance of industrial Ethernet switches is orientated towards their use in industrial and control situations where robustness as well as reliability and the ability to have real-time communications is needed.

Although more expensive than their more standard equivalents for use in general applications, the price difference is not hugely different, dependent upon the actual requirements. Their performance is tailored to suit the requirements of the scenarios in which they are used. Naturally industrial switches are more expensive because of their construction and capabilities, but when considering the possibility of downtime for the production facility if they fail, the additional cost of their purchase is comparatively small.

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