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Secure Ethernet Everywhere: Future-Proofing IoT Networks
Martin Nuss, CTO, Vitesse Semiconductor
JUN 03, 2014 01:23 AM
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$19 trillion. That’s the Internet of Things (IoT) market size as recently estimated by Cisco CEO John Chambers. According to Morgan Stanley forecasts, some 75 billion devices could be connected to the IoT by 2020, or 9.4 devices for each one of the eight billion people on earth.

While much of the hype is on the consumer side and still coming to fruition, the industrial IoT is an entirely different animal and very real today. There are multiple industrial IoT applications where the embedded machine-to-machine (M2M) networking between ‘smart objects’ already exists. This includes a range of commercial, industrial and government applications, ranging from video surveillance and security, smart energy, intelligent transportation, digital signage, manufacturing automation and even automotive connectivity, to name a few. And these applications have far more exacting requirements than consumer-based IoT, the key ones of which we’ll address below.

It’s no secret that most of the world’s wide area networks (WANs) delivering voice, video and data traffic today are based on Ethernet. While originally a local area network (LAN) technology, Ethernet’s low cost, high performance and versatility have made it ‘ubiquitous,’ in the recent words of a Cisco CTO. These aspects also make Ethernet increasingly the backbone of choice in emerging IoT networks, which require both higher bandwidth and networking capabilities. However, in order to meet the more stringent IoT networking demands, Ethernet technologies must evolve and provide native support for three critical capabilities:

1)         Reliability and deterministic performance;

2)         Accurate timing and synchronization, and

3)         Security

Reliability and Deterministic Performance

So who cares about determinism? Determinism means that something needs to happen over a network in a finite amount of time. In Ethernet networks, you basically need to know what ‘time’ it is at every network element, in order to know that you delivered a packet in time.

Does your Fitbit or connected TV need this level of performance? Not really. But what we’re talking about are things like the antilock brakes on a driverless car, or a high-throughput manufacturing and assembly line, or how about an emergency shut-off system at the local oil refinery. Error detection and reliability have much higher stakes in industrial settings, which cannot afford compromises in network stability, performance, and service reliability. The good news is that as IoT networks increasingly move to Ethernet, they can leverage the stringent MEF-standardized service-definitions for “Carrier Ethernet.” We expect that low power, industrial-hardened and MEF CE 2.0-compliant equipment will play a growing role in industrial IoT settings.

Accurate Timing and Synchronization

IEEE 1588v2 Precision Time Protocol (1588 or PTP) originated in the industrial automation setting for highly accurate timing. Not only can it offer time-stamped inputs based on precise time-of-day (ToD) information, but also scheduled and synchronized outputs to applications in real-time. Why does this matter in IoT networks? Real-time communications for time-sensitive tasks. 1588 minimizes the performance drawbacks of traditional control networks and enables real-time visibility and dynamic control of dispersed smart objects working together on time-critical tasks, such as automated rail control or smart grid energy load management. For example, IEEE C37.238 demands ~50ns accuracy per switch in power substations. Meeting that level of 1588 accuracy has to be done in hardware. Fortunately, there are silicon solutions today with 1588 timing support that meet the strict timing requirements and the environmental demands particular to IoT, such as extended temperature support, low power and smaller size. OEMs will need to rely on hardware-supported 1588 capabilities.


There’s no argument that security is important in industrial IoT networks, especially as these previously closed networks connect to the outside world. While privacy protection may be top of mind, device authentication and authorization are equally, if not more important, thanks in large part to the BYOD phenomenon. The good news is that Ethernet has its own security protocol: namely, IEEE 802.1AE MACsec, along with KeySec (now part of 802.1X) for key management. Specifically designed to secure Ethernet networks, MACsec offers a scalable, highly efficient means to secure network links directly at Layer 2. It is also far less expensive to implement than IPsec, which operates at Layer 3 and requires an embedded or dedicated encryption processor. We expect to see 256-bit strong encryption, such as outlined in NIST’s FIPS 197 standard for AES encryption, to be the minimum requirement in Ethernet-based IoT networks. Further, given the IoT’s stringent timing and synchronization requirements, OEMs will look to ‘secure 1588’ technologies which provide 256-bit level encryption without compromising network timing. 

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