Cisco switch to link factory, back office

In a move aimed at unifying factory-floor networks with the ones in corporate back offices, Cisco Systems Inc. has unveiled a ruggedized line of switches based on IP and Ethernet.

Announced at the National Manufacturing Week show in Chicago, the Catalyst 2955 series is designed for use in factories and in utility, transportation and military settings, where temperatures, humidity, dust and vibrations are more extreme than they are in regular business environments, Cisco officials said. The devices, which are about one-third as big as Cisco’s regular switches, are shipping now and are priced from US$2,100 to $3,600.

The 2955 series introduces the first rugged Ethernet switches developed by a major networking equipment vendor, said Harry Forbes, an analyst at ARC Advisory Group Inc. in Dedham, Mass. He noted that Cisco is rolling out the switches at a time when factory-floor devices that control production processes, robots and other machines are starting to be equipped with Ethernet interfaces instead of manufacturing-specific technologies.

The biggest supplier of rugged Ethernet switches for factories is Hirschmann Electronics GmbH in Neckartenzlingen, Germany, Forbes said. Switches accounted for about 8 percent of the 300,000 Ethernet-ready devices sold for factory use last year, ARC said.

For companies that have installed Cisco products and Ethernet technology in their main corporate networks, the 2955 could help extend to the manufacturing realm the quality-of-service features and other capabilities that are built into the Catalyst technology, said Joel Conover, an analyst at Current Analysis Inc. in Sterling, Va.

“You’re going to be able to monitor and control manufacturing from the core network,” Conover said. He added that many mainstream IT managers will be more willing to accept the 2955 switches than devices from specialty vendors like Hirschmann because Cisco’s technology is so widely deployed and accepted.

“I won’t have to sell people on the brand of the switch,” said Carl Staab, manager of communications technology at Emerson Process Management in Pittsburgh. Emerson has been beta-testing the 2955 series since January and hopes to resell the Cisco switches with process control equipment that it markets to water and sewer utilities, he said.

The 2955 series also has 12 Ethernet ports — twice what the competition offers, Staab said. Another advantage over existing factory-floor switches is the 2955’s ability to quickly alert workers to network problems through an external light on the device, he said.