Strategic Network Design: When Good Enough isn’t Good Enough Anymore

In most manufacturing facilities, there is a point person everyone turns to for their shop floor network needs. When a new device needs to be plugged in, a change needs to be made, or a problem is encountered, they rely on their de facto architect and keeper of the Frankenstein Network. For the purposes of this article, let’s call him Tom.

Tom possesses a mental catalog of the devices included, what has been added over the years, and what not to do when it comes to the network. When a snafu occurs, he’s likely to know how to untangle it in the moment. Tom has overseen the growth of the network over the years, and has supported business requirements as new devices and systems have been added. Tom’s a great guy, and everyone on the shop floor has come to rely on him over the years for issues related to their operational technology (OT).

French Gerleman works closely with Tom. He has a great deal of knowledge about the inner workings of the shop floor network. But Tom may be the first to tell you that while he has a handle on the operation of the network today, there really isn’t an overarching, top-down strategy for designing, managing, ensuring the security, integrating OT and IT, and scaling the network into the future. And by the way, Tom is scheduled to retire in less than two years, taking all of his network knowledge away with him.

This is a scenario that we at French Gerleman see playing out in manufacturing facilities each day. Many of these companies are looking to seek a more strategic approach, to have a deliberate design for their network for better management and scalability and bridge the gap between IT and OT to support the organization to reach its goals. They’re looking for a strategic network design. These are the companies that will be the industry leaders of tomorrow.

The Journey to Strategic Network Design

It may seem like an overwhelming task, but the French Gerleman team employs an organized and systematic process to pick you up wherever you are in your journey. The most successful implementations involve the following steps:

  1. Alignment across the organization

There is a common belief that the shop floor network is strictly an engineering and operations technology department function. You select the devices and programs that will keep your plant floor operations running.

Today companies, have recognized that both their operational and informational technology teams can play a critical role in reaching key business goals. It’s a top-down approach in which leadership establishes the objectives, assembles a team to develop the right strategies, and rallies the organization around the achievement of these objectives. In essence, it’s a big culture shift which aligns functions, such as OT and IT, which traditionally are held in separate silos. When leadership conveys the vision and successfully builds these alliances to leverage the valuable data that exists on the shop floor with the top floor, the results can be quite powerful.

  1. The Network Assessment

To know where you’re going, you must first know where you are (and embrace the idea of starting where you are). French Gerleman makes this possible through the Network Assessment. Through this process, you’ll learn the actual, real-time state of your shop floor network:

  • A catalogue of all devices on your network
  • An analysis of your network traffic
  • Any potential conflicts that may cause expensive disruption of operations
  • Existing segmentation, if any
  • Opportunities for enhanced efficiency

In most cases, the person in charge of the network is surprised to learn everything that he or she didn’t realize is occurring on the network. There may be unknown devices, outdated pieces of software, and even a great deal more traffic than originally anticipated. Regardless, the assessment gives us a baseline to begin identifying a plan for the future – starting exactly where you are and phasing it in as budgets and plant capacity allows.  It’s a good first step companies can take during their Industry 4.0 or IIoT journey.

  1. The Security Assessment

Every business is a target for a security breach, and manufacturing facilities are no different. Any breach can cause a disruption in operations, and some can spell disaster for the company involved. Furthermore, a manufacturing company can find itself at greater risk due to the Frankenstein network. This ad hoc network approach can create a wide range of vulnerabilities and exposure.  It can be as simple as outdated software versions or unintentional access points in the network design or architecture.  Other challenges can quickly arise when there is no cohesive plan for the network.

A Security Assessment from French Gerleman follows a two-pronged approach:

  • The Diagnostic Assessment … we’ll plug a special diagnostic apparatus into your system to identify issues and specify which components may be in need of attention. This helps us get a quick snapshot, with hard, real-time data, of the status of your network function and vulnerabilities.
  • Analysis … we’ll dig deep to fact find, learn about your goals and concerns, examine your workflow, and develop a comprehensive report to calculate your risk score, present the vulnerabilities that exist by area and device, highlight deviations from industry standards on network accessibility, and more. Our reports are customized for each French Gerleman client.

The final report serves as a blueprint for implementation of security measures that will help protect against a breach and integrate seamlessly into your overall network design and strategy.

  1. Strategic Network Design Plan

It’s typically not realistic to overhaul an entire shop floor network at once. That’s why the French Gerleman team creates a plan that will prioritize the various areas of your network and build them into manageable segments, until we’ve covered all the ground.

  • Segmentation: As we examine the shop floor and all of the processes that make up the operations, we can begin to identify where walls must be constructed within the network. Segmentation is driven by processes, so a picture emerges that allows us to see which areas should be addressed first versus which are more long-term endeavors.
  • Organization: French Gerleman follows a defined process for organizing the network, labeling the various connections and components so that it’s easy to identify which process, which line, or even which building each piece lives in.
  • Deployment: One-by-one, and based on the plan we’ve developed, the migration of devices from the existing, flat network to a newly created and segmented environment will begin.
  • Management: Because everything that exists on the network is organized and well documented, managing and troubleshooting the network becomes simplified and much more efficient. When there is a problem, it’s isolated to its appropriate segment, so you know exactly where to find it. In this environment, impact to other areas of the plant if something goes wrong (or if there is a security breach) is minimized. When a new device or connection needs to be added, there is a process in place to identify it and document the change.

The Impact of Strategic Network Design

Once we roll out the first segment, the effects are quickly felt. That portion of the shop floor network runs smoothly, like a well-tuned car on a freshly paved highway. You probably didn’t really notice the chugs in the engine or the ruts on the road that developed over time. But once they’re gone, it’s a completely different experience. It leaves you anxious to pave the next stretch so that you can continue your journey in a better place.

But that better place isn’t just for your comfort and convenience. That better place is what will facilitate the achievement of your company’s goals through efficiency and the harnessing of valuable data from the shop floor. This is where your industry’s leaders of tomorrow are operating, and you can too.

French Gerleman is ready to help you begin your journey. Get better insight into your shop floor network. Create a more efficient, organized and secure network environment. Be a leader in your space. For more information, please contact your French Gerleman Account Manager or contact us online.