Ethernet heads to the high seas and factory floors

Kevin Tolly

If all goes well, as you read this I’ll be incommunicado on a sailboat somewhere between Virginia and the Bahamas – a brief and rare respite from IT. While that is what it should be, it certainly won’t. Oceangoing vessels these days are chocked to the brim with technology, with even some small boats having instrumentation built around an Ethernet core.

With less fanfare than one might expect, Ethernet is showing up in places not usually the domain of traditional IT solutions – at sea and on the factory floor, to name just two.

In the latter case, traditional transports are being augmented and replaced by so-called “industrial Ethernet” switches. These turn out to be basic, low-density Fast Ethernet switches built to factory-floor specifications, which means, among other things, that they can last more than six weeks in dusty, hot and shaky environments.

The Tolly Group just finished a validation project involving one of the “big names” in industrial Ethernet, the German firm Hirschmann Electronics. While Cisco also plays in this arena, it is interesting to see the approach being taken by vendors whose history has centred on the factory floor rather than the data centre.

It will be interesting to see how Cisco’s competitors deal with this opportunity. Will they partner with established factory-automation providers, go it alone or just skip it?

While most implementations to date are probably treating the factory floor as a separate IT “planet,” it surely won’t be long before the benefits of internetworking trigger a link up with the traditional data centre.

While the environmental conditions at sea potentially are as bad or worse than the factory floor, the traditional corporate IT switch vendors appear to dominate.

While instrumentation on the lion’s share of commercial ships is likely still Ethernet-free, value-added services such as video on demand have been implemented on cruise ships using mainstream LAN switching for some years.

For a navigation core, vendors such as Furuno with its NavNet line, seem to be leading the charge. Where traditionally these vendors would use some type of proprietary “bus” to link depth sounders and radar domes to display consoles, they now use Ethernet.

This is a big deal to that industry. It is interesting to see the Web site brag about “high-speed networking” and realize that they are talking about 10Mbps Ethernet hubs. Everything is relative.

Unlike the industrial Ethernet vendors, Furuno basically leaves it to customers to get any old Ethernet hub from their local computer store. Given the cheap construction of most low-end hubs and the corrosive effects of the salt air, I don’t think it will be hard to predict the failure point for those networks.

It’s scary to think of relying on poorly specified technology for critical functions such as navigation and depth readings. While Ethernet can certainly do the job, a cheap hub is not the way to go. This could well be a time where leading edge becomes “bleeding edge,” as short circuits in the navigation system turn a cruise into an unplanned adventure.

But before long, the Furunos of the world will figure this out and strengthen the Ethernet infrastructure element. Ultimately, this should lower costs, promote interoperability among vendors of different navigation components and improve time to market.

Best of all, it will provide a retirement job for me – debugging all those misbehaving Ethernet-based shipboard networks.

Tolly is president of The Tolly Group, a strategic consulting and independent testing company in Boca Raton, Fla. He can be reached at