Marvell has launched a line of chips designed to bring Ethernet to factory and industrial settings. The chips include several security features as well as time-sensitive networking. And because Marvell believes the time is ripe for the IIoT to get a dose of Internet Protocol (IP), it has integrated these features into one module, lowering costs and signaling that demand has reached a point where the integration effort makes sense.
Before your eyes glaze over wondering why I’m spending so much time on a networking chip, bear with me. This isn’t just a chip announcement; it’s a milestone indicating that the differences in operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT) are finally converging. And once they converge it’s all going to be IP. The result will be a huge market for traditional IT vendors up and down the stack. It will also put traditional OT vendors on the defense.
This week brought Marvell’s announcement as well as the launch of the Arduino Opta programmable logic controller (PLC). The week before, we saw funding for a company that is building cloud-based PLCs as well as news of an alliance among multiple chip firms to create an open software stack that would bring OPC data from PLCs to the IT network. The goal is for OPC data from OT network to run over Ethernet on the FreeRTOS real-time operating system that’s popular in embedded electronics.
These announcements lay the groundwork to get more data from the industrial side of an operation into the IT side. With the launch of Opta, engineers working with industrial machines can now build prototypes that pull sensor data into the IT network. The Opta PLC can handle industrial protocols such as Modbus and SCADA, but also has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios. This isn’t something designed for deployment at scale in industrial settings, but it is a chance to get traditional embedded engineers comfortable with IP networks.
And they need that level of comfort. The Reddit page for PLCs is evenly split between those who are excited to try it out and those who would never ever bring any wireless device into their industrial environment, especially Wi-Fi. That said, there’s also some misunderstanding in the thread about the use of Wi-Fi. Many embedded engineers could be dragged into using Wi-Fi to export data from a PLC, but wouldn’t ever use it for sending communication from the sensors to the PLC and then back to the sensors.
One reason is because PLCs are used to control expensive and dangerous machines, and reliability and latency are mission critical. When it comes to the IIoT, lost or delayed packets can create safety issues. They can also end up costing companies lots of money if a machine doesn’t get the message to turn off in time. This is where Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN) comes into play. For years, companies have been pushing for TSN over Ethernet and even Wi-Fi to try to get embedded engineers and plant managers on board with IP technology. Marvell’s announcement means those efforts are finally bearing fruit.
But just how far will the embedded world go, and how fast? This is what I wonder as I report on efforts to bring TSN to Wi-Fi 7 for industrial Wi-Fi use cases and read about startups such as Software Defined Automation, which has raised $10 million for virtualized programmable logic controllers. It’s crazy to me that plant managers would want to manage their existing PLCs in the cloud, but because of events like COVID and a trend toward taking people out of factories, it will happen.
The embedded and industrial world has long been a laggard in the name of keeping manufacturing and other critical operations reliable and safe. But the IT world is hungry for new businesses, and the benefits of combining IT and OT are clear when the data from one side can fuel decisions made on the other side (and vice versa). The IT and the OT are converging, and it’s all happening on IP.