Firewalls, VPNs, and Wireless

Another group of items that you might think is not a good fit for the factory floor. Well, I am here to say that not anymore. Especially in this world of IoT[1], IIoT[2], and that marketing buzzword Industry 4.0. Sure, I will concede that these items are in the realm of the IT department which must set up, install, and manage each of them. However, for a controls engineer, it is important to know the functions of these items and when and why we would choose to use them.

If you are like my colleagues and me, you likely find yourself frequently accessing machines from your desk. You also might find it convenient to help out the off-shifts by connecting to a machine from home to help troubleshoot a problem. If that is the case, then Firewalls and VPNs will be your friend. VPNs are easy to set up and easy to use, and most likely they are already in the enterprise just waiting for you to ask to use it. A VPN provides a secure connection over the public internet that will allow you to work just as if you are at your desk.

Firewalls provide a secure barrier between you, your equipment, and the internet. And don’t think because you have a firewall at home that you plugged in and it started working that they must be simple. In the enterprise, they are far from simple, and a tiny little mistake can create a hole in your network that an attacker can slip through and it might take months before you realize something bad has happened. In your home, you might have a dozen or fewer different communication protocols on your computer that access the internet, for gaming, streaming video, surfing, updating, and chatting. In the enterprise, we have all those plus, plus, plus. Protocols are running on a machine that is cryptic, and even IT might not fully understand what they are all doing or where they are all used. This added complexity makes that firewall much more important.

As for wireless, I will say only this: don’t use it on the factory floor. Don’t connect to machinery with it and don’t run equipment on it. It’s a bad idea. Yes, it mostly works, and you might never notice when it doesn’t work, but it will be difficult to troubleshoot some kinds of problems. And in some instances, all the bandwidth you and your coworkers use with phones and other devices connected to the Wi-Fi, it might interfere with production. An overloaded wireless network might even cause the machines to make scrap parts because position feedback or other parameters didn’t get updated promptly. I could get on a tall soapbox and rant for hours about this, but at the beginning of this series, I promised I wouldn’t bore you. So, I will leave it at that.

Until next week, peace.

Jeff

[1] Internet of Things

[2] Industrial Internet of Things (Same as IoT, just marketing jargon)

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