Industrial Ethernet Switches Reflect Ongoing Evolution at the Industrial IoT “Thin Edge”

By Chantal Polsonetti

ARC Report Abstract


Today’s digital transformation strategies require data connectivity throughout the architecture to fulfill the quest for improved operations.  These requirements necessitate extracting meaningful data from devices, assets, and processes.  This is needed to not only automate processes, but also provide input from ancillary functions, such as energy management, environmental monitoring, and related performance variables with the potential to generate operating improvements.  In the machine building realm, OEMs increasingly leverage industrial Ethernet capabilities to add value, differentiate offerings, gain competitive advantage, and meet customer requirements related to Industry 4.0 and Industrial IoT (IIoT). 

While 5G networks offer tremendous future potential, industrial Ethernet wireline networks are the current technology of choice to achieve connectivity in both industrial and infrastructure applications.  Ethernet’s advantages in core performance areas, such as speed, bandwidth, and capacity remain compelling relative to legacy fieldbus and most existing wireless alternatives. 

Continued advancements in Ethernet technology expand its reach and capabilities.  Some of the most important developments include faster speeds, higher bandwidth, higher wattage PoE (Power over Ethernet), and the prospect of standard real-time deterministic Ethernet. 

Serving the Thin Edge of Industrial IoT Architectures

Digital transformation strategies have evolved from cloud-centric architectures to those that increasingly rely on the industrial edge.  Customers look to the edge to address shortcomings of cloud-centric strategies in areas such as latency, bandwidth, OT protocol support, and security.  This leads to strategies that emphasize “edge where you can; cloud where you must.”

The edge concept itself is evolving in response to refined edge-to-cloud relationships, including ongoing tiering into a connectivity-centric “thin edge” vs. a compute-and-store-oriented “thick edge” characterized by greater capability inherent in products such as industrial edge servers. 

ARC anticipates industrial Ethernet switches (IES) to remain firmly rooted in their connectivity role at the thin edge of this emerging multi-tiered stack, with continued reliance on gateways, routers, and thick edge devices for edge-to-cloud integration and edge computing.  This is reflected in the strategies of most leading IES suppliers, many of whom rely on thick edge devices for edge-to-cloud integration.  Market share leader Cisco is an exception, with the company’s IOx edge compute platform supported in its IE 4000 switches and throughout its network infrastructure portfolio.

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Ongoing Evolution at the Network Infrastructure Tier

The thin edge or connectivity tier is undergoing profound change due to continuing technology evolution and standardization. This is true regarding not only the expanding number of available devices that meet industry-specific requirements in segments, such as transportation (EN50155), electric power T&D (IEC 61850-3), and surveillance (PoE); but also in technology areas such as Gigabit Ethernet, Time-Sensitive Networks (TSN), Industrial IoT, and network management, among others.

Continued advancements in Ethernet technology expand the reach and capabilities of industrial Ethernet architectures.  Speed and bandwidth continue to increase, and suppliers are responding by introducing switches supporting GB, 2.5 GB, and 10 GB speeds.  PoE standards, important for powering edge devices ranging from wireless access points to video cameras used in surveillance applications, are similarly evolving, with devices supporting the new 90-watt IEEE 802.3bt standard ratified in 2018, already becoming available.

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Keywords: Industrial Ethernet Switches, Network Infrastructure, Industrial IoT (IIoT), Industry 4.0, Thin Edge, ARC Advisory Group.

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