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The NET-Wars (Fieldbus wars reloaded)

29 March 2016

About 10 years ago it seemed a done deal, the ‘fieldbus wars’ were pretty much battled out and some clear winners came on top.

Systems like PROFIBUS, Devicenet and Modbus came out as victors, depending on what part of the world you would be doing business. In the end of the last decade, special Industrial Ethernet protocols were still not considered a viable option to the fieldbus solutions, because the early versions of Ethernet based systems were not putting up what was promised in the early marketing statements.

For manufacturers (at least the financial & engineering departments) the transition was also not met with great enthusiasm. They had to transition from their simple low-cost processors they used for the Fieldbus versions to more performant processors, which are needed to cope with Ethernet based communications. This, together with a plethora of other necessary software, made it a whole lot more complicated for them. Moreover, it was annoying because it was yet another investment to get the same sensor/actuator/IO to the same customers. Money spent on protocol developments instead of their core business (investing in better sensors/actuators) was quite frustrating, especially if you also consider the after sales support necessary for each protocol.
On the integrators side more or less the same ‘annoyance’ happened. The same sensor/actuator/IO with the same functional properties was more expensive. The engineering & production costs were higher than their fieldbus counterparts, at least for the first generation Ethernet enabled devices.

The ‘fieldbus wars’ of the past are re-occurring in the NET arena

Although at an early stage, this phase of networking evolution started the second wave of ‘fieldbus wars’, or to rephrase it better: the ‘Net-Wars’. Now the larger protocol interest groups & manufacturers of industrial equipment have a new platform to compete for souls & revenue or to keep network/brand loyalty. From PROFIBUS to PROFINET, from Devicenet to Ethernet IP, from Modbus to Modbus TCP etc. Some manufacturers saw it also as a good opportunity to make their own new protocol to keep and gain customers. Protocols like Ethercat & Powerlink are good examples of this.
What is fundamentally different and what is the same?
Some companies specialized on solving the challenges for the manufacturers dealing with all these new protocols. They started to supply technology and services to support all popular Ethernet based protocols with the same hardware interface. Not only the standard Ethernet functionality but also specialties like time high accuracy synchronization could be supported. Now this was a game changer! Not only could the manufacturers support multiple Ethernet protocols in one solution, also the production costs would be the same for all protocols resulting in lower inventory.

Evolving Ethernet

But now, as these very similar interfaces are used more and more in the market, people start thinking further. On the outside all these protocol implementations look alike. All have the same one or more standard looking Ethernet connectors. As these perceptions of similarity start to sink in, end users now also start to realize that now it all comes down to software. Integrators are now wondering, and even getting down right annoyed, that there is still no interoperability. No real efforts seem to be initiated or planned by the protocol consortia to make that happen. Ethercat doesn’t connect with Profinet, Profinet doesn’t connect to Ethernet IP etc.

Future of Industrial Ethernet

Only quite recently another player has come into the game. Some of which call it the begin of the end of specialist industrial network protocols. It’s called TSN, Time Sensitive Networks, and it’s part of the IEEE standards association. Their goal is to enhance the existing 802.1 and 802.3 Ethernet standards, making things like high accuracy time synchronization and seamless redundancy become standard Ethernet features.
With all these Ethernet developments going on, there is one thing I still don’t see covered or solved, namely the cyber security issue. In all actual and upcoming Ethernet technologies still no effort has been made to intrinsically secure industrial network protocols. It is quite surprising (or rather: shocking) to conclude that none of the current industrial networks have any security whatsoever integrated into the protocol. Current recommendations are to make security perimeters, but once a hacker is in that zone due to poor administration or sloppy adhered procedures it is game over. More on that in another blog post.
So the big question now is if, or how, this so called ‘war’ continues or if an interoperable ‘peace’ will take place. Only time will tell.




PROCENTEC is a knowledge partner in the field of PROFIBUS and PROFINET technology and develops products and services aimed at optimizing end users’ industrial automation networks. Through a worldwide network of local offices and distributors, PROCENTEC supplies the key components required for the installation of a measurable and manageable network. Its innovative, tailor-made solutions allow PROCENTEC customers to operate successfully in the field of industrial automation and maximize their process returns. In addition, PROCENTEC is an internationally accredited Competence and Training Centre for PROFIBUS and PROFINET. PROCENTEC organizes training courses which help employees to optimally deploy these technical systems for their operational objectives. Also PROCENTEC offers end users the necessary support during implementation procedures, certification processes, audits and technical faults.

PROCENTEC certified professionals are always on standby to consult their customers about the optimal solution for their specific needs. They have over 20 years of experience with PROFIBUS and PROFINET technology.

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