Cisco gets tough: Details ruggedized switches for harsh environments

Cisco, which wants to expand its clout into the industrial networks used by power-generation utilities to support the electric grid, today announced an expansion of its "smart grid" portfolio with ruggedized and low-latency switches and other equipment intended for use in electric-power distribution systems.

"Utilities often have systems unique to them," said Jenny Gomez, marketing manager in Cisco's Connected Energy Business Unit that oversees the architecting of a wide range of equipment for networking and physical security to modernize utility networks while supporting their legacy systems that in some cases aren't being swapped out. As part of this effort, Cisco today introduced a number of products, including the CGS-1000 switch in a small form factor for use in a location such as an electric substation that's part of a complex, critical power-distribution system.

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"The CGS-1000 is built to withstand harsh environments," pointed out Joe Ammirato, senior director of product management at Cisco's Connected Energy Business Unit. The ruggedized low-latency switch is intended to be able to work with utility sensors that often have serial interfaces, not Ethernet ones, Ammirato noted.

With experience gained over a few years in working with some utilities in North America and Europe, Cisco has been designing specialized switching, network access and security products for both data center and substation equipment under its so-called GridBlocks architecture. The push is part of Cisco's much-ballyhooed "Internet of Everything" initiative that's taking the company further into areas outside of traditional business IT networking.

The GridBlocks architecture supposes that Cisco will be able to provide equipment aimed not only at the substation tier, but also the system-control level where wide-area networks connect substations with each other and with control systems as well as SCADA and other event messaging.

The architecture also addresses utility data centers and control centers, plus devices and systems associated with residences and third-party elements. The Cisco GridBlocks architecture lists several other tiers for interchange and trans-national grid monitoring and tie-ins as well. In many cases, Cisco isn't coming up with entirely new products for the utilities but adapting its network segmentation, switching, security and management platforms to try and suit specialized needs utilities have.

Cisco is recommending MPLS as a core technology for utility use, especially in substations, says Ammirato, who points out that utility networks associated with the grid may not necessarily be IP-based at all today or they connect in a style not seen in modern IT business networks. For utilities intending to modernize, the challenge is in swapping out what can reasonably be changed while bridging older legacy systems that for one reason or another will remain related to the transmission grid.

Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG publication and website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security. Twitter: @MessmerE. Email:

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