The EtherNet/IP Origin Story

People love stories. We are wired to pay attention when someone says: “Hey, I’ve got a story to tell you.” I’ve read a number of books on stories and storytelling and it is just fascinating. The reason our ears perk up and we pay attention to stories is because it’s a good way to learn. Our ancestors leaned long ago that it’s better to hear from Grok how he escaped the saber-toothed tiger than to try to learn it on our own when we happen to meet a saber-toothed tiger down by the watering hole.

In our day nothing has changed. We pay attention because we want to test scenarios in our head instead of in real life. How would I react if I was swindled? How would I cope with the loss of a love or a spouse? Or how would I go about getting a new job if this one suddenly disappeared? Because what happens to other people could happen to us, stories are very interesting.

One of the most important stories is our “origin” story. We all have an origin story. There is always some key reason that we are where we are doing what we are doing and thinking the way we think. Sometimes it’s because a parent guided you in a direction. Other times it’s just because this one thing happened and it unexpectedly changed your life. An origin story tells a lot about someone – what they value, what’s important to them, and how we can talk to them.

Technologies have origin stories too. Of course, technology origins don’t captivate most of us the way that human origin stories do. But often, there is an interesting angle to why a technology developed the way it did, and how the circumstances and environment of the time caused that technology to emerge. Techies like us have a lot of interest in these stories.

I find the EtherNet/IP origin story fascinating. Where did that come from? Why did it develop as it did and why is it so popular? It’s a good story. Not one I would tell my grandchildren around the fireplace, but one I would tell around the bar to other automation guys. So here goes…
“Hey, I’ve got a story to tell you.”

Networking in the 1980s was very limited. Actually it was almost non-existent except for things like DH+ and Modbus RTU. It became pretty clear that something new was needed. Automation speeds were increasing; there was more I/O to transfer. There just wasn’t enough bandwidth on DH+ and Modbus, so something else was needed. Plus users were tired of proprietary protocols that locked them into a single vendor experience (and the associated excessive cost structure).

That something else, that new open protocol, turned out to be ControlNet. Besides the fact that it was an open protocol, it had precise deterministic behavior. It offered scheduled and unscheduled traffic, and it organized I/O and data using an object oriented structure. That was all pretty unique and novel. It looked to be a real winner.

Unfortunately, what the designers didn’t know was that they were just about to enter the Ethernet age – an age where Ethernet would come to dominate corporate and industrial communications. Ethernet, with 10 mega baud communications (100 and 1000 meg were yet to come) and standard hardware that everyone soon became familiar with, it soon dominated. First it captured the enterprise and then the factory floor. ControlNet, with its 5 meg speed limit, was soon relegated to the sidelines.

DeviceNet, that same object technology over CAN, was a good first step. It was actually an amazing breakthrough. I had never heard of CAN (Controller Area Networking) before and was stunned by it. At last, a good way to link up to 64 field devices at high speed using an open protocol that anyone could implement. It finally opened up the customers locked into proprietary vendor systems to many of us smaller and more innovative suppliers.

But while we were busy adopting DeviceNet, Ethernet took off like a spaceship on the Business side of the house. In the late 1990s, the core of DeviceNet, CIP (Common Industrial Protocol), was adapted to TCP and UDP to form what we now know and love, EtherNet/IP. And we’ve never looked back.

Very cool story. The EtherNet/IP origin story certainly won’t be a best seller, but I personally think it would make a great movie. Tom Cruise would play me, but I’ll probably have to write the script myself.

Maybe I will tell it to my grandchildren.

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