How Ethernet Switches are Branching Into Industries Far Beyond ITNovember 25, 2020 by Luke James
While Ethernet switches were once solely associated with IT applications, today they are staples in industries from military to rail communications.
Connectivity is the cornerstone of modern technology. Whether it’s full industrial or enterprise Internet of Things systems, consumer smart home devices, or medical monitoring solutions, much of the wireless connectivity is made possible by Ethernet switches.
Once upon a time, Ethernet switches were found almost exclusively in information technology (IT) environments, but they’re quickly becoming ubiquitous in many applications spanning critical industries like rail, marine, industrial, and defense.
And with the IoT expected to grow to around 25 billion devices by next year, they are destined to become a staple of modern industrial network architectures, enabling fast and secure data processing and sharing.
What is an Ethernet Switch?
An Ethernet switch (or network switch) is a multiport network bridge that connects devices on a network by using packet switching to selectively receive and forward data packets from one port to an end device.
Block diagram of an Ethernet switch for a computing application. Image used courtesy of Mouser
Just as with hubs and bridges, Ethernet switches can be interconnected to form larger networks like the vast ones seen in enterprise and industrial IoT environments like office buildings and manufacturing facilities.
Here’s a quick look at the roles Ethernet switches play in bringing connectivity to the key industries highlighted.
It goes without saying that today’s military has a heavy reliance on accurate to-the-second intelligence and information for quick, critical decision-making. This makes secure, high-speed, and reliable communication networks and embedded systems vital to modern military operations.
While intelligence and data are typically analyzed and processed in the field, it often needs to be transmitted back to command centers. This must be done securely, quickly, and efficiently, often in real-time, to ensure swift decisions and appropriate responses to dynamic and invariably volatile situations.
A rugged military Ethernet switch by MilDef, which can operate down to -40 degrees Celsius. Image used courtesy of MilDef
Due to the need for security, Ethernet switches for the military include native features that maximize data protection such as port-level authentication and fiberoptic ports to defend against electromagnetic spying.
Block diagram of an Ethernet switch for military applications. Image used courtesy of Microchip
The switches must also be robust, rugged, and resistant to extreme temperatures given their potential operating environments. This is achieved through design considerations like the thickness of printed circuit boards (PCBs), enclosures that provide ingress protection, and resistance to radio frequency interference (RFI) that don’t sacrifice size, weight, and power.
In an industrial network, Ethernet switches are one of the most fundamental devices. They increase network bandwidth and provide determinism for industrial control applications, enabling facilities like smart factories and manufacturing facilities to operate on the scales needed to continue innovating and meeting demand.
A Cisco Catalyst IE 3300 Series Ethernet switch for industrial applications. Image used courtesy of Cisco
In addition to rugged design considerations such as industrial-style steel enclosures and resistance to shock, vibration, and temperature extremes, industrial Ethernet switches will usually run off DC power and include redundant power inputs. This enables the power supply to have a standby backup that ensures maximum uptime.
Harsh Rail Environments
In the rail industry, Ethernet switches serve many different purposes depending on the application. They may, for example, be required to transfer data from sensors and cameras or they may be used to provide passengers with access to the Internet.
In both of these use cases (the transfer of data from sensors, cameras, and other equipment), high speed and efficiency are beneficial. In addition, the Ethernet switch itself needs to be robust and rugged enough to cope in a harsh operating environment, engineered to standards like IP30 and enclosed in tough enclosures that protect it from bumps, scrapes, and jolts.
An example of an Ethernet switch that can be used in harsh rail environments: The Duagon NL30 switch that is compliant with EN 50155. Image used courtesy of Duagon
Depending on where an Ethernet switch is intended for use, such as on-track or onboard a rolling stock vehicle, it may be rated to other standards such as the EN 50155 railway standard to certify that the switch can withstand the temperature ranges, shock, and vibration levels that come with rolling stock applications.
A Staple in Industrial Environments
While Ethernet switches were once confined to IT environments such as offices, they’re now ubiquitous in demanding industrial environments worldwide.
As the areas where they’re used continue to grow, especially the industrial IoT, and connectivity extends to even more sectors and applications, their importance and utility, despite sometimes being overshadowed by "sexier" and more interesting tech, will become all the more valuable.