Mission-critical networks: making the move to industrial metaverse

Chris Johnson, SVP, global head of enterprise business at Nokia, discusses how 5G may help industry to ‘visualise’ operational processes
Mission-critical networks: making the move to industrial metaverse

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Not many people would blame a mission-critical network operator for thinking that the ‘metaverse’ is far enough in the future to not prioritize it as actionable today.

After all, when Neal Stephenson devised the term in 1992, the metaverse was a post-internet 3D virtual escape via a programmable avatar. The stuff of science fiction – not real-world, mission-critical environments.

Chris Johnson, SVP, global head of enterprise
business at Nokia

Thirty years later and the metaverse is far more science than fiction. Industrial digitalisation is now allowing organisations to fully visualise operational processes – enabling full control through connected services. When combined with the metaverse, in an interactive digital environment, real-world industrial settings can be realistically simulated. Tools like digital twins, virtual twins and connected networks can give mission-critical operators a fully virtualised, accurate picture of all facets of the network and interact with it from a secure command point.

What does the metaverse mean in a mission-critical context?

The promise for asset-intensive industries in this vast, virtual space is significant. Enough so that readying for the industrial metaverse is moving to the top of the to-do list… even if you operate a mission-critical network that underpins critical infrastructure. In fact, 75 percent of enterprises responding to a recent Nokia and Gartner Peer Insights survey think the metaverse is five to ten years away and they must begin to prepare now.

However, one may argue that the stakes are too high for operators of mission-critical services and infrastructure. I would argue that the cost of not transitioning is higher.

Mission critical operations are already seeing the benefits of Industry 4.0 tools from autonomous processes, enhanced analytics, cloud services and improved worker safety. The industrial metaverse is the next step for many mission critical operators in this digital journey – facilitating a level of secure collaboration and optimisation unimaginable just a few years ago.

Sectors such as defence and public safety can utilise the capabilities of the industrial metaverse for training, emergency planning and remotely controlling assets in the field. This enables organisations to consider emergency ‘what-if’ scenarios and dangerous incidents that could not be simulated in the real world safely – events like cyberattacks, natural disasters or a hazardous event within industrial settings.

Beyond improved training and onboarding, the industrial metaverse can make day-to-day operations safer for workers. The use of video feeds and metaverse digital-physical fusion capabilities to remotely control physical machinery can increase situational awareness without exposing workers to any unnecessary risks from dangerous operations.

Mission critical network operators must, however, always consider the technologies and best practices that can mitigate risk, and make the advantages of the Industry 4.0 technologies and metaverse use cases that are available even to the most sensitive industrial sectors.

What’s the rush for mission-critical networks?

The mission-critical network, based on past generation (TDM) technologies, has performed in stellar fashion. In fact, it has worked “well enough” that some might think they should leave “well enough” alone.

These networks support the most essential functions and services of a business, government, economy or society — from first responders and hospitals to power grids, air traffic control and railway systems. The data and applications that run on these networks demand the highest levels of uptime, performance and security. Any degradation or outage could have significant — even life-threatening — consequences, a level of risk that makes many mission-critical organizations hesitant to change.

The challenge is that other industrial sectors and segments of society have already taken technological leaps forward. Take mining for example – in Peru, Minera Las Bambas adopted innovative Industry 4.0 use cases to expand autonomous and remote operations, reducing the number of workers exposed to dangerous conditions while increasing productivity. Meanwhile, Industry 4.0 use cases can be leveraged in industrial testing facilities, such as Bosch and Rohde & Schwarz’s simulated factory in Germany where 5G is enabling automated guided vehicles to safely manoeuvre a factory floor.

In this new world, a mission-critical network that continues to operate at a “well enough” standard will soon lag. Worse, the cost to continue with current operations while adopting new applications will increase.

Being mission-critical does not exclude your network from making the leap to Industry 4.0 digitalization.

Rather, the question becomes: how do I modernize and transition to more digitalized and connected business models while ensuring the highest levels of resilience and security?

We have the answers.

Modern means more

#1. One of the first areas for consideration is security.

Today’s fixed and mobile networks include a whole range of built-in technologies to maximize uptime, prevent failures and contain security threats. With the growth of enterprise and IoT connectivity, smart cities and smart homes, more devices are going to be connected – making a compromised home router a potential entry point for a DDoS attack.

“Fixed” networks based on IP and optical technologies have well-established capabilities to ensure reliability, resiliency and security while delivering the high-speed, low-latency performance Industry 4.0 applications need.

#2. Bandwidth demand is another concern, as data and video consumption will grow exponentially.

Network operators can supplement IP networking with field-proven Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) technology for fast, secure, scalable and bandwidth-efficient network services for critical Industry 4.0 applications. Riding over optical transport, the network can offer a wide range of powerful, integrated security features to protect data and ensure regulatory compliance.

#3. Mission-critical is predicated on reliability – and this will only grow in importance with the introduction of Industry 4.0 applications.

IP/MPLS networks provide built-in redundancy so that if one or more routes fail, data can still be seamlessly moved to another route, ensuring it reaches its destination no matter what. At the same time, integrated alerts call attention to the problem so any issues can be resolved with little to no downtime.

Combining the highest available capacity and resilience with the most secure transmission foundation of any network, fiber optics perform at the highest standards. That makes them the ideal transmission foundation for a connected Industry 4.0 infrastructure, enabling everything from stationary robotics to safety mechanisms deployed in hazardous and harsh environments.

#4. Industry 4.0 can also protect networks and utilities from climate change-induced environmental events.

Sustainability is not just an environmental imperative, it’s a financial imperative and an opportunity. Failing to meet zero-emission targets can result not only in financial penalties from regulators but also lost deals when companies can’t meet their customers’ sustainable supply chain targets. Digitalization holds the key to helping meet sustainability goals while strengthening overall performance.

Mission-critical leaders in the spotlight

There are mission-critical industries around the world who can benefit from an operational transition to Industry 4.0 technologies.

Power grids are undeniably essential, and outages such as the blackouts in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan caused by cryptocurrency mining significantly disrupt day-to-day life. In 2021, a ransomware attack on the Colonial Gas pipeline led to fuel shortages, drove up prices, grounded aircraft and prompted a national security threat declaration in the U.S. Even though this attack did not impact the operational network, the network was taken offline to mitigate any potential risk.

Industry 4.0 is equipped to prevent and mitigate outages and attacks like these by providing the foundation for advanced security technologies and applications. With the right digital technologies, operators can monitor their infrastructure and take proactive measures to prevent such incidents.

Energy providers such as power utilities face increased pressure to balance electricity supply and demand, incorporate more renewable and local sources of electricity, and make the grid more resilient to cyber threats and climate change-induced environmental threats. This requires modern networks that allow for more intelligence to be injected into — and extracted out of — infrastructure operations, including ultra-low-latency mobile broadband, IP and optical transport.

Industry 4.0 digitalization also creates new business opportunities. For example, in Western Australia, the Public Transportation Authority is applying digitalization use-cases to modernize its metro railway communications network. This involves building an advanced high-tech private wireless digital platform founded on a mission-critical IP/MPLS network connecting to a dedicated private cloud. The result is mission-critical voice, high-speed data, and video services along with improved mobility benefits for the community. This demonstrates how Industry 4.0 technologies and use-cases are improving visualisation of the infrastructure as a whole, providing a much-needed safety and response backbone to support the railway’s operations.

Embracing evolution

Mission-critical infrastructure operators must be assured they can safely and consistently deliver their essential services. Smarter, faster, Industry 4.0 networks built with the utmost resiliency are more than capable of meeting the unique requirements of a wide range of industries that support critical infrastructure. These modernized networks can enable advanced Industry 4.0 applications while keeping systems up and running 24x7. Just as they have been doing, for a lot longer than we’ve been talking about the metaverse.


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