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5 foundational elements of network architecture

Nov. 3, 2021
How to design with digital transformation in mind

Industrial networks often live in the shadow of groundbreaking technologies, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and smart devices. However, a strong network architecture is what makes these exciting technologies accessible.

Whether you’re just beginning your digital-transformation journey or well on the way to a fully connected enterprise, it’s essential that your network architecture be designed to support your digital transformation goals.

The right network architecture can unlock digital-transformation benefits such as making information visible across many departments, reducing downtime, easing maintenance, increasing production agility and reducing security risks. Many leaders, however, are unsure how to design and deploy an industrial network architecture that best meets their unique business needs.

Key foundational elements

A great place to start is to make sure you have key foundational elements in place.

  • Security: Cybersecurity is a priority in any good network design. You can protect your network against an ever-changing threat landscape by using multiple layers of diverse technologies for threat detection and prevention. These technologies should be implemented by IT and OT and be applied at different levels of the network architecture.
  • Reliability: Uptime on operational-technology (OT) networks is critical to production success. As such, having a reliable and resilient network architecture is a must.
  • Scalability: As your production operations change, you will need a network architecture that can easily scale to help meet your business needs and won’t limit you when you’re trying to implement something new.
  • Standards-based design: By adhering to best practices for network design as outlined in industry accepted standards, you can more easily integrate third-party solutions.
  • Validated architectures: A network architecture that has been tested and proven reduces the amount of front-end work required by you and your team. It also supports a faster, more predictable deployment.

Capabilities that enable transformation

On top of these foundational elements, you need to build in the capabilities that are key to meeting your digital-transformation goals. These capabilities expand what’s possible in your operations and can also help you address common challenges such as data silos, as well as risks such as cybersecurity threats and unplanned downtime.

Key enabling capabilities in most digital transformation strategies include data visibility, risk mitigation and mobile/remote accessibility.

Data visibility

Being unable to access valuable data from Industrial IoT (IIoT) devices because it’s stuck in data silos is not only frustrating, but it can also decrease business productivity.

A well-conceived network will support data being securely passed across teams and made accessible to the right employees at the right time. For example, network design considerations such as segmentation techniques and security policies are essential to enabling secure data flow that allows organizations to convert raw data into organizational intelligence across the enterprise.

This ultimately enables plant operations and business leaders to have a comprehensive view and make educated business decisions fast.

Risk mitigation

The 2019 Cisco Cybersecurity Series Report indicated that 56% of organizations surveyed have experienced a significant security event in the past year. These unfortunate events put workers, information and assets at risk, and they continue to be a challenge for every manufacturer.

To address this, a secure network design paired with enterprise-wide policies and procedures are vital to reducing risk exposure and maintaining operational integrity. However, this cannot be accomplished with a single product, technology or methodology.

Securing a network requires a defense-in-depth strategy that addresses and protects against internal and external threats. This approach uses multiple layers of defense—administrative, technical and physical—using diverse technologies for threat detection and prevention implemented by different personas and applied at separate levels of the architecture.

The combination of these solutions helps to reduce the risk of cybersecurity incidents, protect valuable assets and accelerate digital transformation.

Mobile and remote accessibility

The need for mobile and remote accessibility has become increasingly apparent during the pandemic and will continue to grow.

The ability to connect people and machines through secure network accessibility provides countless opportunities, such as the ability to leverage global expertise, improve workforce efficiency, enhance work productivity and decrease downtime.

For example, technicians can use mobile connectivity to access information while at the machine and throughout the repair. This can speed up repair work, compared to having to go from the plant floor to the maintenance shop to look up procedures or technical drawings. Additionally, remote network access also enables experts to perform real-time troubleshooting from offsite locations, rather than having to visit the plant.

Each of these capabilities, enabled through remote connectivity, improves efficiency and productivity while reducing travel time and costs.

About the author

Eric Knopp is Cisco strategic alliance manager at Rockwell Automation. Contact him at ­­­­­­­[email protected].

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