Who should provide your network support?

Decisions about how to support your factory networks can present hard choices. Is outsourcing support a better choice than utilizing your own IT group? Contributing Editor Wayne Labs reports.

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By Wayne Labs, Contributing Editor

CONGRATULATIONS. The factory floor networks are installed and running pretty much as designed. The important role you played in the project went well. Enjoy a moment of satisfaction for a job well done. OK, that moment is over. Now it’s time to consider, or perhaps reconsider, the decisions made about who will provide the network support to keep the networks reliable and secure. Do you keep it in-house, or do you find some hired guns?

Outsourcing plant IT services—which include maintenance, upgrades, tech support and education—can be a cost-effective way for manufacturers to manage their plant networks, especially when they lack the manpower to go it alone. Both control vendors and system integrators provide all these services, including 24-hour a day on-site maintenance and operations.

What issues are critical in deciding whether to outsource your network maintenance, upgrades, tech support and training? What about insourcing (doing the work in house) with the help of your IT department? Ironically, many manufacturers are using outsourcing, especially network training, to get started with insourcing. What ever path you choose, you need to carefully consider all the security issues entwined with today’s open TCP/IP-based networks.

Just Call the Repair Man?
Most system integrators and control vendors discourage “point” service calls and contracts because it’s a little like calling the repair man to fix your refrigerator. You hope he shows up in a reasonable time, has the right parts and knows how to fix your appliance. Most manufacturers find they just can’t wait for service and need to take matters into their own hands.

Doug Jackson, process control and SCADA specialist at Parker Water & Sanitation in suburban Denver, says, “When there’s a problem, we need to get it fixed right away, and we have the talent in house to do it. It makes it a lot easier when you don’t have to try and find vendors at 3:00 a.m.”


Companies that insource may still need to outsource their security needs—at least until they get familiar with all the nuances of security.

A former control engineer who is currently the director of information for a pulp and paper company based in Washington State said it was easier to fix a problem in-house, especially when it involved, for example, overnight network administration, virus scanning and user IDs. As an IT person formerly involved with the control side, he has a thorough understanding of what is needed in plant network.

“When your network’s down, everybody’s scrambling, so you’re not going to wait for someone to show up,” adds George Thomas, president of Contemporary Control Systems, about his own operation. “Manufacturers need to build up some level of expertise in house to protect themselves against these crises.”

Educating customers to become self-sufficient is a goal of Mike Wehrenberg, automation and control sales manager for Kendall Group, and a member of the EtherNet/IP Infrastructure Task Group. Wehrenberg conducts seminars on Rockwell Automation, Cisco, and Hirschmann networks for his customers’ control engineers and finds, that as a distributor/SI, these three companies will go in and help a customer when a problem arises that’s too big to handle alone.

Outsource for the Long Term
For Evan Rademeyer, information executive for Sasol Synfuels in Secunda, South Africa, long-term outsourcing has been a requisite in keeping his company’s 4,500 workstation, 450-node network running. This network has 186 miles of fiberoptic cable and 112 miles of copper, and the site occupies more than six square miles of territory. The network is comprised of an old, proprietary token-ring system and an Ethernet backbone. Rademeyer’s internal staff maintains the token-ring system, and a local IT company, Business Connexion, maintains the Ethernet backbone. Rademeyer, who worked closely with a group of control engineers to set up a manufacturing execution system (MES), says that outsourcing has been very cost-effective. His staff consists of upwards of 10 people, and works with his outsource partners who maintain the interface equipment between the plant and business systems.

John Eva, vice president of customer service at Invensys, agrees that outsourcing should mean more to a customer than just fixing a problem when it occurs. “We have support people located near our customers who can deal with all three networks [business IT, control, and field], but our strength comes from the field and control networks,” he states.

“The issue is to take more of the responsibility for maintaining the availability of a network as opposed to correcting the network when it fails. If you look at it from a transactional point-of-view, the tendency among users is to wait until something breaks and then fix it. We’d rather maintain a network—not on a transaction basis—but on an annual agreement basis.”

Another important aspect of an ongoing relationship is that a vendor’s support program can help a company look at its networks in ways it previously hadn’t considered. Rockwell Automation says it can help customers take a holistic approach to security. “We start with a standards-based approach, in other words, ISA SP 99,” says, Gary Slivka, product manager of Industrial Network Services for Rockwell Industrial Automation Network Services. “We want to help the customer look at security issues from a risk-management perspective and consider all the parameters that might be responsible for loss or damage should someone get into the system. We look at safety and regulatory compliance as drivers. We look at the network infrastructure, the firewalls, and the separation between business systems and process control. We ask the customer about its maintenance practices, and whether they allow anyone to come in with a laptop or if they restrict people.”
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