Cellular today versus Wired & WiFi

Why is technology such as cellular so important to the M2M/IoT industry today? The short answer is that it sits on the largest standards based network in the world and has a global footprint. It’s the only long-range device that can easily be deployed in remote locations at a low cost at the same time integrating and interfacing many of the electrical interfaces and protocols required to develop and engineer a sound sensor, video and telemetry network.

It would have been impossible to predict when the 1st cellular phones were deployed in the 1980’s that the same network would be used to connect industrial data. During this time, SCADA systems were simple. They were defined by serial wired communications and sent via protocols such as MODBUS. Designed for industrial applications, they connected sensors and serial devices to a nearby management center. They kept the system isolated, functioned as a “closed silo”, and data was used for basic monitoring and control. The thought of globally sharing data or analytics was never a consideration.

The industry has come a long way. System and industry requirements have pushed the technology envelope on the delivery and process side. Remote monitoring and control have grown to be a critical part of a larger, accessible eco-system. What was often considered a “stand alone” asset can now be a part a broader initiative that extends intelligence to the network edge, reducing operations costs and enabling functionality and value generation outside of the asset itself.  

Uncertain about security, companies with a limited geographical footprint often look past wireless options in favor of traditional wired networks. However, when properly configured and structured, wireless networks offer a flexibility and cost savings that are almost impossible to beat. Wireless also supports legacy serial data technology; it’s scalable and integrates into today’s complicated networks.

There is still a very important aspect to supporting the legacy serial SCADA type networks. Just as the cellular network is the largest in the world; serial and MODBUS exist in millions of devices with a significant equipment lifespan. They are not going anywhere for a long time.   Many of these device assets exist at the edge of the network, outside the traditional scope of the corporate IT infrastructure.   This edge of network can get messy, supporting a wide variety of equipment interfaces and protocols.

Versatile modular cellular routers are available to support the machine networks that evolved over time at this messy edge. Consider routers that have flexible configurations with onboard electrical interfaces such as USB, Serial, Ethernet and I/O. This makes connectivity easy when interfacing with an Ethernet product such as a PLC, IP Video camera, or serial devices such as MODBUS RTU’s or when supporting serial server type applications.

Also, when a cellular device incorporates the ability to add user defined programmability (like the majority of those available at B+B SmartWorx), many of the interfaces mentioned in this article may be implemented in a manner where the decision making process is made locally. This is important when data cost is an issue or the need to make fast local decisions. Intelligent cellular routers must have the features and functionality to process local data and integrate into cloud-based analytics and monitoring providers.

Ultimately, it takes a lot of planning to properly scope out requirements when deciding what to use as backhaul for remote or network isolated sites. Just a few to consider are:

  • Security
  • Distance
  • Topography
  • environment conditions
  • availability of power
  • requirements for Edge Intelligence
  • backhaul infrastructure
  • required data speed
  • mission critical status of the asset, and
  • your needs for remote device management and configuration

As you go through the process of building your project requirements and you consider incorporating cellular into your network, remember there are differences between a router, a switch, a modem and a gateway. Each serves a different function but will often complement each other. Often, these terms are used inter-changeably in error and that can cause confusion.

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