Strategic Network Design: When Good Enough isn’t Good Enough Anymore

Network

 

In most manufacturing facilities, there is a point person everyone turns to for their shop floor network needs. When a new device needs to be plugged in, a change needs to be made, or a problem is encountered, they rely on their de facto architect and keeper of the Frankenstein Network. For the purposes of this article, let’s call him Tom.

 

Tom possesses a mental catalog of the devices included, what has been added over the years, and what not to do when it comes to the network. When a snafu occurs, he’s likely to know how to untangle it in the moment. Tom has overseen the growth of the network over the years, and has supported business requirements as new devices and systems have been added. Tom’s a great guy, and everyone on the shop floor has come to rely on him over the years for issues related to their operational technology (OT).

Although Tom has great deal of knowledge about the inner workings of the shop floor network and knows all the reasons why the environment is the way it is, Tom may be the first to tell you that while he has a handle on the operation of the network today, there really isn’t an overarching, top-down strategy for designing, managing, ensuring the security, integrating OT and IT, and scaling the network into the future. And by the way, Tom is scheduled to retire in less than two years, taking all of his network knowledge away with him.

This is a scenario that we at Applied Technologies see playing out in manufacturing facilities every day. Many of these companies are looking to seek a more strategic approach, to have a deliberate design for their network for better management and scalability to help bridge the gap between IT and OT which can allow organizations to reach their goals. Companies looking for a strategic network design are the companies that will be the industry leaders of tomorrow.

 

The Journey to Strategic Network Design

It may seem like an overwhelming task, but the Applied Technologies team employs an organized and systematic process to pick you up wherever you are in your journey. The most successful implementations involve the following steps:

1. Alignment across the organization

There is a common belief that the shop floor network is strictly an engineering and operations technology department function. You select the devices and programs that will keep your plant floor operations running.

Today companies, have recognized that both their operational and informational technology teams can play a critical role in reaching key business goals. It’s a top-down approach in which leadership establishes the objectives, assembles a team to develop the right strategies, and rallies the organization around the achievement of these objectives. In essence, it’s a big culture shift which aligns functions, such as OT and IT, which traditionally are held in separate silos. When leadership conveys the vision and successfully builds these alliances to leverage the valuable data that exists on the shop floor with the top floor, the results can be quite powerful.

2. The Network Assessment

To know where you’re going, you must first know where you are (and embrace the idea of starting where you are). Applied Technologies makes this possible through the Network Assessment. Through this process, you’ll learn the actual, real-time state of your shop floor network:

  • A catalogue of all devices on your network
  • Various software running
  • A basic analysis of your network traffic
  • A topology of how the network is currently, setup and configured
  • A list of low, medium, and high problem areas
  • Existing segmentation, if any

In most cases, the person in charge of the network is surprised to learn everything that he or she didn’t realize is occurring on the network. There may be unknown devices, outdated pieces of software, and even a great deal more traffic than originally anticipated. Regardless, the assessment gives us a baseline to begin identifying a plan for the future – starting exactly where you are and phasing it in as budgets and plant capacity allows.  It’s the stepping stone to ultimately achieving Manufacturing 2.0 or IoT.

3. The Security Assessment

Every business is a target for a security breach, and manufacturing facilities are no different. Any breach can cause a disruption in operations, and some can spell disaster for the company involved. Furthermore, a manufacturing company can find itself at greater risk due to the Frankenstein network. This ad hoc network approach can create a wide range of vulnerabilities and exposure.  It can be as simple as outdated software versions or unintentional access points in the network design or architecture.  Other challenges can quickly arise when there is no cohesive plan for the network.

A Security Assessment from Applied Technologies follows a two-pronged approach:

  • The Diagnostic Assessment… we’ll plug a special diagnostic apparatus into your system to identify issues and specify which components may be in need of attention. This helps us get a quick snapshot, with hard, real-time data, of the status of your network function and vulnerabilities.
  • Analysis… we’ll dig deep to fact find, learn about your goals and concerns, examine your workflow, and develop a comprehensive report to calculate your risk score, present the vulnerabilities that exist by area and device, highlight deviations from industry standards on network accessibility, and more. Our reports are customized for each Applied Technologies client.

The final report serves as a blueprint for implementation of security measures that will help protect against a breach and integrate seamlessly into your overall network design and strategy.

4. Strategic Network Design Plan

It’s typically not realistic to overhaul an entire shop floor network at once. That’s why the Applied Technologies team creates a plan that will prioritize the various areas of your network and build them into manageable segments, until we’ve covered all the ground.

  • Segmentation: As we examine the shop floor and all of the processes that make up the operations, we can begin to identify where walls must be constructed within the network. Segmentation is driven by processes, so a picture emerges that allows us to see which areas should be addressed first versus which are more long-term endeavors.
  • Organization: Applied Technologies follows a defined process for organizing the network, labeling the various connections and components so that it’s easy to identify which process, which line, or even which building each piece lives in.
  • Deployment: One-by-one, and based on the plan we’ve developed, the migration of devices from the existing, flat network to a newly created and segmented environment will begin.
  • Network Topology/Blueprint: Applied Technologies will develop a new network topology of how everything should be connected based on findings from the assessment phase
  • Deployment Process: Applied will work to develop a phased approach on the best way to start implementing the new network topology.
  • Management: Because everything that exists on the network is organized and well documented, managing and troubleshooting the network becomes simplified and much more efficient. When there is a problem, it’s isolated to its appropriate segment, so you know exactly where to find it. In this environment, impact to other areas of the plant if something goes wrong (or if there is a security breach) is minimized. When a new device or connection needs to be added, there is a process in place to identify it and document the change.

 

The Impact of Strategic Network Design

Once we roll out the first segment, the effects are quickly felt. That portion of the shop floor network runs smoothly, like a well-tuned car on a freshly paved highway. You probably didn’t really notice the chugs in the engine or the ruts on the road that developed over time. But once they’re gone, it’s a completely different experience. It leaves you anxious to pave the next stretch so that you can continue your journey in a better place.

But that better place isn’t just for your comfort and convenience. That better place is what will facilitate the achievement of your company’s goals through efficiency and the harnessing of valuable data from the shop floor. This is where your industry’s leaders of tomorrow are operating, and you can too.

Applied Technologies is ready to help you begin your journey. Get better insight into your shop floor network. Create a more efficient, organized and secure network environment. Be a leader in your space. For more information, please call us at 314-274-8000 or contact us at sales@appliedtech.pro.

 

Propel Your Business into the Future with a Network Assessment from Applied Technologies

 

The Frankenstein Network

 

Most of us are familiar with the story of Dr. Frankenstein, a determined young chemist who brings a creature to life that’s not quite what he intended to create. While his intentions were good, the ultimate reality of his creation brought a host of unintended consequences.

 

At Applied Technologies, we’re often reminded of Dr. Frankenstein and his creation when we examine plant floor networks.

 

The Current State of The Plant Floor Network

Building a plant floor network and adding components along the way isn’t quite as straightforward as it may seem. Like Dr. Frankenstein, those on the plant floor know all of the fundamentals and have a pretty good grasp on the various switches and components that are plugged in. However, there is a lot going on behind the scenes that isn’t immediately obvious to those who are in charge of managing the system. These things can impact the operation of the network in other areas and result in unexpected situations. In fact, when we plug in to get a handle on the traffic moving through the plant floor network, it’s often astonishing. Most don’t have a full understanding of how much traffic is moving at any one given time, or a full inventory of everything they’re dealing with.

What causes this high volume of traffic? We’ve found that most industrial networks have been built in a flat, open manner with components plugged in over a span of decades as additional functionality is required. Everything is running on the same highway, and all machines can see every other machine on the network. It’s a situation that isn’t necessarily “broken” – like Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, it can “walk and talk” – but it sure does leave the door open for problems. Think of the 1,000-plus devices that are plugged into your network. When left to play in the same space, they not only can cause unintended consequences for other devices on your network, they can open up security issues that you may not be aware of.

If this sounds like your plant floor network, you’re not alone. And if you’re inclined to think that this isn’t applicable to your network (everything is working, so it’s fine!), you may be surprised to learn what’s happening behind the scenes. In fact, an ad-hoc, “Frankenstein” network is the norm in most situations. The Applied Technologies team has worked with industrial clients for more than 30 years to build and maintain organized, efficient networks. The process begins with a comprehensive Network Assessment.

 

When You Should Start to Consider a Network Assessment

Companies understand the need for more efficient design and management of their networks. They are looking for greater efficiency, increased security, and the ability to leverage data to progress towards their overall business objectives. The Frankenstein network doesn’t work for them. It won’t drive them to the future or allow them to excel in a competitive environment.

Many customers begin thinking about the health of their network at key points of their existence. Perhaps they have a new device or switch that needs to be plugged in. Maybe there is a piece of software or hardware that’s due for an upgrade.  Regardless, in most cases, they don’t have a strategic plan or full picture of the network. Some know this, and others don’t. We’ve found that there are four predominant mindsets in the management of plant floor networks:

  • The unaware … these are the folks that live in bliss. Their network is working, so everything must be OK.
  • The confident … those who believe they know exactly what is happening in their network, and what will happen when that next device is plugged in.
  • The worriers … they know something catastrophic will happen one day, and they’re anticipating the pain that they’ll go through when it does. They pray every time a new device is plugged in that nothing will go wrong.
  • The duct tape masters … they’ve become the experts of putting in a little patch here and there to keep things running. In most cases, duct tape masters have been around for a long time, and no one really knows where all their patches are. Which may be OK today, but when they retire or leave the company, they take that knowledge with them.

The Network Assessment from Applied Technologies is the primary step in pulling back the curtain on your plant floor network. Through this process, we can show the unaware and the confident all the things they may not know. We give comfort to the worriers and identify all the patches made by the duct tape masters over the years. Our goal is to help our customers build their networks so they can be efficient, productive, and excel in their industries.

 

The Network Assessment covers the following areas:

  • Network traffic analysis
  • Inventory of all devices, switches and hardware installed on the system
  • Security assessment to identify vulnerabilities
  • Network stability
  • Recommendations for network segmentation

With the insights delivered through the Network Assessment, you’ll be able to make informed decisions about how to scale your network moving forward, how to get the greatest level of efficiency, stability and security, and how you can begin to leverage smart manufacturing in your business.

Every company can benefit from a Network Assessment.  It really doesn’t matter your company size, number of years in business or your industry.  No company is immune to problems if they don’t have a well-designed and documented network.

Don’t wait until something breaks to assess your network. Contact Applied Technologies today at 636.274.8000 or sales@appliedtech.pro, and start seeing the benefits of moving away from a Frankenstein network. Once you uncover the possibilities, you’ll experience a great, worry-free ride.

Why Perform a Network Assessment?

There are many circumstances that can drive a company to need to assess their network devices, topology, connectivity and security posture. Some of most common are:

 

General Inventory:

Organization grow over time, acquire other companies. Many times, devices are often added on the fly and configured ad hoc to get things working. In these situations, focus can be more on getting things done and there can be less thought on things such as strategy, security and compliance. Documentation can often suffer as it can be given a lower priority in fast paced environments

Problem Resolution:

As problems come up, it can be astonishingly difficult to overcome when networks have grown organically over time and documentation is lacking.

Compliance:

Many companies have industry specific regulatory bodies that govern how they must operate. Having a solid network design with detailed documentation is always the foundational requirement to comply with these regulations.

Network Upgrade/Refresh:

This provides an opportune time to “start with a clean slate” mentality. Knowing what its really going on in your network (both hardware and software) not only provides a solid justification for capital investment but ensures that you are making the right capital investments. Overall design with performance, redundancy and security considerations with be your roadmap for the future.

For more information contact us at sales@appliedtech.pro or call 636.274.8000 to discuss your network assessment requirements with one of our Account Managers or Practice Leaders.