The convergence of blockchain and SD-WAN in manufacturing

Atchison Frazer of Talari, explores how two emerging technologies are coming together to help shape the future of manufacturing and supply chain IT.

In manufacturing, what used to be called the network is now described as part of the critical infrastructure.

And with the increasingly distributed and outsourced nature of manufacturing, wide-area networks (WANs) need to connect different manufacturing sites and branches across a company's entire footprint, while also ensuring that employees and partners can collaborate and securely access the information they need, whenever and wherever they are.

There is also the 'trust tax', which refers to the cost and complexity of establishing efficient working relationships between manufacturers, suppliers and customers.

Customers vetting potential partners and manufacturers doing due diligence on suppliers and contractors, need assurances about their processes, security, reliability and governance, and spend long periods of time auditing and certifying their operations. Creating more streamlined relationships has major benefits for productivity and efficiency, especially with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) coming into focus and manufacturers facing challenges associated with emerging technologies such as augmented reality (AR), artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and 3D printing. And with accelerating migration to the cloud, another challenge is creating cost-effective, secure and reliable links from on-premise to the cloud.

One emerging solution to mitigate the trust tax and address connectivity issues is the convergence of blockchain-enabled recordkeeping with Software-Defined (SD) WANs, simplifying trust-building and paving the way for highly-autonomous, agile and streamlined manufacturing. Blockchains are designed to be secure and inherently fault-tolerant, using public-key cryptography and time-stamps for proof of every record or action. Blockchains are therefore ideal for enforcing more secure communications and contracts within businesses and their supply chains. The technology can also enable smart contracts, which certify the authenticity of a product or transaction via a public ledger, and reduce regulatory and audit-related risk while giving both buyers and sellers more confidence.

For Blockchain to succeed, it must rely on a failsafe network infrastructure. Enter the new generation of edge networks: SD-WANs. Manufacturers have traditionally relied on functional WANs for running mission-critical and real-time applications, from audio and video tools and sensor-based condition monitoring along the production line, to new IIoT based systems.

But many of these applications are very sensitive to small changes in latency, which can have a noticeable effect on user experience and productivity.

The SD-WAN is an extension of software defined networking (SDN) that decouples the network configuration from individual wide area networks, links and hardware components. Instead, SD-WANs utilise software and virtual network overlays to take advantage of available WAN connections, while centralising control of and visibility into the entire WAN fabric. SD-WANs offer enterprises the opportunity for cost savings, flexibility, bandwidth, manageability and superior cloud access.

With an SD-WAN, all circuits are active, so WAN locations have access to the full aggregated amount of bandwidth. An SD-WAN solution can create a smart and responsive network, one that adapts in real time to bandwidth demand and actual network conditions, ensuring that critical applications always have priority and all applications take the best quality path through the network. An SD-WAN can route each packet based on what bandwidth is best matched with the packet's application data. This way, apps such as Bitcoin, VoIP and video that are highly sensitive to jitter, latency and packet loss can be prioritised over ones that are less vital to the business. This means critical systems always take the best path across the network and can be proactively re-routed to avoid performance-robbing issues.

Whether the WAN is based entirely on traditional MPLS leased-line circuits, a hybrid WAN of MPLS and broadband, all Internet backed up with wireless, or extended to the cloud, an intelligent SD-WAN solution will ensure continuous availability and predictable performance. And with such networked intelligence across your WAN, you can avoid having to expand your MPLS lines and get more value from your existing investment.

For manufacturers, a diversified SD-WAN makes expansion, mergers and acquisitions much easier than they would be with a traditional WAN and when combined with Blockchain technology, SD-WANs add a new level of agility, trust and confidence, particularly in new IIOT manufacturing. SD-WANs are certainly gaining market momentum. Projections vary but they are all large figures. IHS Markit reports that the SD-WAN market opportunity will reach $3.3 billion in software and appliance revenue in 2021, driven by the growing digital transformation.

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