Sixnet Aims to Broaden Industrial Networking Field

The rugged switches and routers that drive networks on oil rigs, power stations and research operations in Antarctica don't always feature high-end enterprise capabilities. Sixnet is out to change that.

 By Charlie Schluting
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There is a whole sub-industry in the networking world you may have never heard of: Industrial Networking. Rugged switches and routers that run on oil rigs, power substations and in Antarctica are hardened far beyond the standard Cisco fare. Often, these niche networking devices do not include all of the features one would expect in enterprise-class equipment. Sixnet believes they should, and is launching new products to meet this need.

First, let's talk about industrial networking before getting into how Sixnet is working to change the industry.

What Is Industrial Networking?

What really makes these switches different is how they are manufactured to meet certain industry standards and regulations. This usually means the devices are designed with those goals in mind, and are manufactured with high quality components.

Standard network equipment vendors, like Cisco or Juniper, do offer some products aimed at the power industry. Power substations may require a network device be minimally shielded against EMI, so creating a product line for that industry isn't a big leap for most companies. Complying with dozens of different industrial standards, however, requires a big investment. Sixnet focuses on "heavy industrial" and meeting very stringent requirements. A power substation is, after all, indoors and stationary. True heavy industrial network equipment is hardened against temperature extremes, shock & vibration, and EMI interference, for example. Oil platforms, moving vehicles, cold and wet environments--they all need networking too.

Industrial, but Limited

Historically, industrial Ethernet has been plagued by unmanaged switches or switches with only basic feature sets. While the hardening requirements may have been met, the usefulness of these switches was severely limited, from the IT manager's viewpoint.

Scott Killian, director of Sixnet's Connectivity Division explains, "the plant managers want the most hardened product available, while IT wants feature-rich products." Therefore, it is only natural to create products to fulfill both needs.

Hardened switches without even basic VLAN or Spanning Tree capabilities means that networks will only scale a small amount. As connectivity increases to remote and unforgiving environments, the network grows and requires advanced features like Rapid Spanning Tree, Per-VLAN Spanning Tree, Link Aggregation, QoS, and similar. In some ways, the industrial networking world is struggling with the same manageability issues that the enterprise business networking world conquered in the early 1990s. Those more expensive and less-hardened switches cannot be deployed in rugged environment, for obvious reasons.

Sixnet's goal is to deliver all enterprise features to the industrial world.

Sixnet EL228

The EL228 is Sixnet's latest industrial Ethernet switch that includes more advanced enterprise networking features. Notably, the price point is fairly low compared to standard Cisco switches. The EL228 includes basically every feature you'd find on standard enterprise switches, including but not limited to:

  • Rapid Spanning Tree
  • Per-VLAN Spanning Tree (called MSTP by Sixnet)
  • Link Aggregation protocol: LACP
  • Jumbo Frames
  • QoS/CoS prioritization
  • LLDP (like CDP from Cisco)
  • Stacking/Clustering for managing multiple switches from one interface
  • IGMP multicast support

As you can see, the EL228 is almost a layer 3 switch/router, like most layer 2 switches seem to be these days.

Most interesting, though, is the EL228's choice of ports. First, it's all SFP (small form-factor pluggable) modules. You can choose to have copper or fibre ports, based upon which SFP is inserted. The EL228 is a 28 port switch, and only four of them are gigabit capable. At first we were scratching our heads on this one. There are 24 SFP slots, which are only capable of 10/100 Mb speeds. Why? Industrial switches aren't powering a branch office where large file copies or video streaming is taking place. Those 24 ports are connecting industrial equipments' management interfaces or remote management PCs, which don't require much in terms of data transfer. Furthermore, these remote networks are most often connected via low bandwidth links, so even four gigabit ports is probably overkill for many installations.

Luckily, the entry point for these switches is very low. If gigabit ports aren't needed, you aren't paying for them. If they becomes necessary in the future, simply purchase the SFP in copper or fibre, and it's ready to perform. This isn't the first switch in the world to have all SFP ports, but in the industrial space the flexibility this design provides is extremely valuable.

Sixnet is not limited to Ethernet switches, either. Since its acquisition of Bluetree Wireless in 2007, Sixnet has been developing industrial grade wireless as well. Cellular modems for use in police cars and similar applications also have strict requirements similar to the heavy industrial market. You may not have known, but Sixnet has been around for 30 years, operating as a private company in the industry. Sixnet's latest marketing push and dedication to improving the state of industrial networking means it's certainly a company (and product line) to watch.

This article was originally published on Feb 6, 2010
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