Rugged requirements: building networks for chemical plants

On the one hand, the networking requirements for forward-thinking chemical plants are not so very different from those of other organisations. They need a network infrastructure that can support all their critical communications and data flows, which will underpin new applications as they add them, and keep their data safe. They probably want to be able to introduce IoT technology and undertake the convergence of OT and IT which is becoming increasingly common in industrial settings. They want holistic visibility and real-time network intelligence, so they can make smarter business decisions and innovate more effectively.

On the other hand, chemical plants present some of the most complex environmental conditions which any enterprise technology has to cope with. Extremes of temperature. Rapidly moving or vibrating equipment. High levels of dust and other atmospheric particles. Water – either as part of core operations or as part of regular cleaning processes. And of course, potentially harsh and damaging chemicals.

Compounding this, communications networks within chemical plants are truly mission-critical. In office environments, should the main business network go down for an hour or two, the operational disruption could be enormous, but worker safety is unlikely to be put at risk. In chemical plants, the picture is very different. Reliable communications networks can genuinely be a matter of life or death.

All of these factors mean that the hardware underpinning networks in chemicals plants – elements like switches, routers, and access points, as well as the sensors deployed throughout an IoT ecosystem – need to be rather more rugged and robust than the kit installed in other settings. It needs to be able to withstand harsh treatment and hard conditions without any fear for either its performance or its safety. In many cases, it needs to meet specific regulatory standards, proving that it can cope with such conditions and has been independently certified.

The foundation of a ruggedized network is heavy-duty switches and access points. IP ratings are used to indicate levels of waterproofing and dust protection, with an IP67 rating meaning that the kit is protected from contact with harmful dust, and is protected from immersion in water up to a depth of 1 metre. Cisco’s Catalyst Heavy Duty switches and access points are IP67 rated, and MLR Networks would always recommend these or similar products as the foundation for a ruggedized network.

On top of this, chemical plants need to think carefully about network security, for hardware that can withstand harsh environmental conditions is of little use if it can be easily intercepted by bad actors. Once again, Cisco can help, having last year acquired Sentryo in order to provide automated device visibility and protection for Operational Technology (OT) assets – those elements of chemical plants’ networks that are focused on managing the physical processes of the plant.

These two elements – physical robustness and resilience, and security and visibility to protect against malicious intrusion – need to work together seamlessly in order to create truly ruggedized networks for the chemicals industry. MLR Networks is proud to have built up a specialist practice in this area and would be delighted to support your chemicals organisation in creating a truly connected – and protected – plant. Get in touch with us today.


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