February 23, 2011

Need for speed

I woke up the other day and decided that I wanted to eat a bit of my mother’s food. I am from a city in the Mediterranean shore of Spain called Valencia. We Valencians are a particular sort. We are a people that don’t have a fiesta without exploding a few hundred kilos of powder in a public square crowded with thousands of people and like to burn monuments valued in the millions of Euros just for fun. So yes, we are a weird people and prone to do bizarre things: like waking up on a Sunday 400 km away from your mother’s and deciding that it is time for a good home meal. So I traveled 400km in roughly one and a half hours. I must say it was a pleasant trip.

Might I mention all this is completely legal in Spain? Before all of the speed fans in the audience buy their tickets I must mention as well that I went by train.

Love of high speed trains is one thing that connects French, Spanish and Chinese people. Although controversial at times it is one fine piece of engineering, and believe it or not, TIC has a lot to say in making it possible. Some time ago we spoke about the sensible SCADA systems that manage complex industrial systems and how they are very sensitive and must be protected to ensure critical systems continuity. In the same way high speed trains are highly sensitive to communications systems and rely a great deal on the network laid along the rail for its functioning.

At 300kmph a train is very sensitive to anything lying in the rail, so a complex network of sensors along the way detects any unexpected object lying in the path and sends an order to stop the train if it finds something. Another network of cameras monitors the path for any unauthorized access to power stations along the way. There are sensors that monitor speed, wind speed, temperature, water level, seismic activity (almost anything really), and it is linked together by an Ethernet network reporting back to a central processing center that has the ability to stop a train if any there is any issue in the next 2 km.

So, yes, Ethernet networks, some of them designed around the old reliable spanning tree protocol, control if the train where I am sitting, which now is topping off at 300kmph, must stop because a cow decided to stand in our way. And you know what? In 20 years of experience it has never failed.

Just as with SCADA, these systems must be protected; a virus or hacker attack can render a high speed train system inoperable. Not to mention that deploying different systems, sensors and devices along 400km of rail is no small feat. Ensuring that all of them are secured and deployed with minimum effort is a task where NAC can shine and payoff in a matter of months.

Imagine having thousands of sensors, actuators and devices spread along a high speed line spanning 400 km. If one of them were compromised or failed to boot, or if it were wrongly configured, replacing it would take hours. Sending a qualified IT engineer somewhere to check the port and network configuration of a switch in no man’s land is undoubtedly expensive.

NAC simply automates this process, so the replacement can be performed by unskilled people with a few simple commands: connect the device, check the light, and close the door.

I am a happy man today, food was fine, I’ve got kilos of oranges to share with the readers of this post, and Ethernet switches are making possible trips like mine right now. What more can I wish for?

About The Contributor:
Salvador FerrerDirector of Solutions Architecture

Salvador Ferrer has been with Extreme Networks for over five years is the Director of Solutions Architecture. Ferrer has more than 15 years of leadership experience in the networking market at companies such as Nortel and Bull.

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