3 Protocol Trends You Should Know About

August 10, 2021
Richard Theron

Since the introduction of Modbus in the late 1970s, network protocols for critical infrastructure and industrial automation have continually evolved. It’s only been in the past few years, though, that we’ve seen things go from slow evolution to seismic shift.

As the IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) continues to explode – the IIoT market is on track to add $14.2 trillion to the global economy by the start of the next decade – automation engineers and integrators aren’t just wondering how to keep up. They’re also wanting to know, “What’s new in network protocols and how will those changes impact our organization?”

As the developer of MSA FieldServer, we not only monitor what’s happening with industrial network protocols like BACnet, Modbus, SNMP, EtherNet/IP, and others, we create protocol gateway and communication products.

Specifically, our products are designed to help engineers and technicians leverage emerging trends so they can achieve their cloud-based and SCADA industrial automation objectives as quickly and easily as possible.

But before we talk about those trends, let’s talk about a common thread among them: security.

Security, Security, Security

Real estate agents are famous for answering clients who ask about the three most important factors in buying a new house with this: “location, location, location.” Location, they say, is that important.

The same can be said in answer to this question: “What’s happening with protocols right now?” This time the answer is, “security, security, security” because security is that important.

Because there are now so many more devices and connections to SaaS (Software-as-a-Service), network security, data integrity, and secure cloud connectivity have become equally as crucial as interoperability.

So, with security as the backdrop for this discussion, here are the top 3 protocol trends you may want to capitalize on in 2021 … and beyond.

  1. BACnet/SC

The BACnet/IP standard has been around for decades, having been deployed on more than 25 million devices worldwide. This protocol facilitates interconnectivity of devices within an automation system, and supports such applications as HVAC, controls, and lighting.

What BACnet/IP lacks, however, is the ability to “self-secure,” meaning that it doesn’t have network security functionality already built in. Instead, BACnet/IP networks typically are secured within an organization’s VPN (Virtual Private Network) or VLAN (Virtual Local Area Network).

Security wise, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this set up. The problem, however, is in being able to meet an organization’s IT security requirements and/or needing the cooperation and efforts of IT professionals.

To circumvent those issues, a new secure protocol is in the works, which will not only include important security measures, but also remove the IT-related issues and burdens.

BACnet Secure Connect, known as BACnet/SC, is the secure answer to many of the concerns with BACnet/IP because it:

  • Employs IT-acceptable network security standards
  • Eliminates the need for static IP addresses
  • Is independent of network broadcasts
  • Integrates easily with firewall devices
  • Simplifies configuration
  • Uses shared IP networks
  • Requires no VPN set up
  • Enables secure message transport
  • Provides secure device authentication and authorization

Once BACnet SC becomes an accepted standard, hopefully yet this year, MSA will adopt the standard within our FieldServer gateway products.

  1. EtherNet/IP

Introduced in 2001, EtherNet/IP is accepted by Industrial giant Rockwell Automation and others as their ethernet communication protocol of choice for automation products.

With the success of the global installation of EtherNet/IP comes a new demand for ODVA (Open DeviceNet Vendor Association) certification of EtherNet/IP products. ODVA is an independent global association dedicated to advancing open, interoperable communication technologies in industrial automation. ODVA oversees product compliance with CIP (Common Industrial Protocol) network specifications to ensure global interoperability.

As one of the most versatile communication protocols available, ODVA is enhancing CIP to meet industry and device vendor demands for enhanced cybersecurity.

CIP Security is ODVA’s answer to defend and protect programmable controllers and devices on I/O networks from attacks originating on those networks. CIP Security leverages proven open security technologies to ensure such things as secure identities, data encryption, message authenticity without excessive overloads and delays on existing systems.

  1. Project Haystack

Technically, Project Haystack isn’t a protocol. Instead, it’s a tagging technology designed to make device data more usable.

To grasp the value of Project Haystack, it might help to understand device data and how it works.

Every device within an industrial automation setting has its own data. For example, an air damper that controls air flow might deliver data about flow rate, whereas a thermostat will deliver temperature-related data.

The combination of the different device data is used in maintaining safe, working automation systems.

However, when these varying devices are from multiple manufacturers, the data and the way that data is presented also varies, making it can be confusing if not downright impossible to interpret and properly make use of the data.

Project Haystack is the answer to that conundrum. It is a common markup language that helps integrators not just read the data, but truly understand the meaning of it. This common markup language essentially tags the data across many different automation systems, including controls, sensors, and equipment.

The bottom line is that data as a set of numbers is useless. That same data, however, when put into context and organized to make sense becomes relevant information that empowers decision making.

Keeping Up

Change, of course, is inevitable. That means protocols, security, and IIoT will continue their evolution journey even as you start or continue your connected journey.

While nobody can predict the coming changes, we can confidently say that those who succeed at secure, efficient, and connected industrial automation will be those who keep current with an ever-changing automation landscape, leverage new protocols, and integrate advanced technologies.

If you’re an automation specialist looking for additional insights on this topic, our industrial automation experts are available to help. Please contact your local MSA representative today.

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Richard Theron
Richard Theron is the product line manager for Fieldserver and cloud at Sierra Monitor, where he works intimately with companies in the building automation, industrial automation, energy management and life safety markets to help them cloud-enable their equipment.

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