There is no single right way to implement a power utility communications network, just as there is no single right way to implement any industrial networking application, but there are common concerns.
Redundancy is no longer a luxury. The growing demand for electricity from industrial, commercial, and consumer accounts means that switches, routers, and other networking products that support the substation require redundant power supplies along with network-path redundancy to ensure data keeps flowing. In addition, there is the threat of sabotage. Today, even 1U rack-mount switches have entered the market with hot-swappable power supplies to reduce the chance of downtime. Networking software also comes with redundancy features.
Another issue that must be addressed by all industrial markets is data creep. SBI Energy predicts the volume of Smart Grid data will grow from 10,780 terabytes in 2010 to more than 75,200 terabytes in 2015. IEC 61850 recognizes IP technology is important for managing increased data flow because it is standards-based, flexible, and scalable. Other concerns in managing exploding data transmissions are greater throughput and intelligent, bandwidth-protective routing of information through protocols such as IGMP (Internet Group Management Protocol). The sheer volume of data passing through industrial networks makes it necessary to automate much of the managing, analyzing and visualizing of all that data.
As data traffic increases, appropriately hardened switches and routers need to support greater numbers of ports (mostly 100Mb and Gigabit fiber) to provide the bandwidth to accommodate increased video security. A secondary benefit of increased port density is that it also increases network reliability by providing fewer points of failure.
Video and access security applications in power utility substations and other industrial applications have been a main driver in the increasing popularity of Power over Ethernet (PoE). PoE provides both device power and network data using a single wire, extending the industrial network in ways that were previously physically impossible or too expensive due to the necessity to run separate ac power wiring. Many of these PoE products are located in outdoor cabinets or in dusty industrial settings. Therefore, it is not enough for networking products merely to integrate PoE, but they must also be hardened.
As the need for security in remote sites has increased, so has the need for sophisticated, industrially hardened routers that can be utilized as firewalls and repositories of other cyber-security technologies. IP-based WAN services reduce costs (compared to expensive leased lines), enhance security, and provide compatibility with corporate IT.
Wireless extensions to Ethernet networks have been gaining in popularity, enabling the installation of Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) devices on the consumer side where fiber cabling would be cost prohibitive. Wireless has also made it possible to bring remote substations, particularly in rugged terrain, cost effectively into Smart Grid management systems.
As wireless deployments increase, wireless functionality continues to be reviewed and refined by industrial equipment vendors and their targeted industries to address both security and regulatory concerns.
Software is as important as hardware in todays industrial communications networks, with managed switches penetrating deeper into the networks. Application-specific functionality, such as the latest precision timing (IEEE 1588v2) and fault recovery/redundancy (RSTP-2004) protocols are important for the power industry. Security is also an issue; industrial and enterprise security initiatives are helping to ensure that critical industrial applications can withstand cyber attacks, and reliably manage and direct huge volumes of data.
Standards have made industrial networking equipment easier to integrate, future proof, and scale. However, as industrial networking improves and matures, and as additional demands are made on the switches and routers, it is important to understand that innovation must continue and that "one size fits all" is not a concept of value to developers of industrial networks.
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Jim Krachenfels is marketing manager at GarrettCom, Inc.