Intel embraces SDN to modernize its chip factories
Until recently, software-defined networking (SDN) technologies have been limited to use in data centers — not manufacturing floors.
But as part of Intel’s expansive plans to upgrade and build a new generation of chip factories in line with its Integrated Device Manufacturing (IDM) 2.0 blueprint, unveiled in 2021, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based semiconductor giant opted to implement SDN within its chip-making facilities for the scalability, availability, and security benefits it delivers.
“Our concept was to use data center technologies and bring them to the manufacturing floor,” says Rob Colby, project lead. “We’ve had to swap the [networking infrastructure] that exists, which is classic Ethernet, and put in SDN. I’ve upgraded a whole factory from one code version to another code version without downtime for factory tools.”
Aside from zero downtime, moving to Cisco’s Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) enabled Intel to solve the increasingly complex security challenges associated with new forms of connectivity, ongoing threats, and software vulnerabilities. The two companies met for more than a year to plan and implement for Intel’s manufacturing process security and automation technology that had been used only in data centers.
“This is revolutionary for us in the manufacturing space,” Colby says, noting the cost savings from not taking the factory offline and uninterrupted production is a major financial benefit that keeps on giving.
That ability to upgrade the networking infrastructure without downtime applies to downloading security patches and integrating tools into the production environment alike, Colby adds.
“Picture a tool being the size of a house. One of our most recent tools is a $100 million tool, and landing a tool of that size involves a lot of complexity, after which I have to connect it so it can communicate with other systems within our infrastructure,” Colby says. “[Having SDN in place] makes landing tools faster and the quality increases. We’re also able to protect it at the level we need to be protecting it without missing something in the policy.”
Bringing SDN to the factory floor
The project, which earned Intel a 2023 US CIO 100 Award for IT innovation and leadership, has also enabled the chipmaker to perform network deployments faster with 85% less headcount.
Colby says it took a couple of years for the partners to build the blueprint and begin rolling out the solution to existing factories, including rigorous offline testing before beginning.
The migration required no retraining of chip designers in the clean room but some training for those in the manufacturing facilities. “We really went above and beyond to make it as seamless as possible for them,” Colby says. “We’ve recently been testing being able to migrate them over to ACI on the factory floor without any downtime. That will accelerate our migration for the rest of the factory floor.”
The collaboration with Cisco enables ACI to be deployed for factory floor process tools, embedded controllers, and new technologies such as IoT devices being introduced into the factory environment, according to Intel.
It was “clear that we needed to move to an infrastructure that better supported automation, offered more flexible and dynamic security capabilities, and could reduce the overall impact when planned or unplanned changes occur,” Intel wrote in a white paper about its switch to SDN. “The network industry has been trending toward SDN over the last decade, and Intel Manufacturing has been deploying Cisco Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) in factory on-premises data centers since 2018, gaining experience in the systems and allowing for more market maturity.”
Moving ACI to the manufacturing factories was the next step, and Colby cited Sanjay Krishen and Joe Sartini, both Intel regional managers, as instrumental in bringing SDN to Intel’s manufacturing floor.
The broad view of SDN in manufacturing
There are thousands of semiconductor companies globally, mostly in Taiwan. Yet the US Government CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 has incentivized more semiconductor manufacturing on US soil, and it is taking root.
“The use of cellular and WiFi connectivity on the factory floor has enabled these manufacturers to gain improved visibility, performance, output, and even maintenance,” says IDC analyst Paul Hughes.
“For any industry, software-defined networking brings additional scale and on-demand connectivity to what are now connected machines (industrial IoT),” Hughes says, adding that this also provides improved access to the cloud for data management, storage, analytics, and decision-making. “SDN allows networks to scale up securely when manufacturing activity scales and ensures that all the data generated by and used by machines and tools on the factory floor can move quickly across the network.”
As more semiconductor manufacturing springs up in the US, the use of SDN also “becomes one of the key steps in digital transformation where, in this case, a semiconductor manufacturer can collect, manage, and use data holistically from the factory floor to beyond the network edge,” says Hughes, whose most recent survey, IDC’s 2023 Future of Connectedness Sentiment, shows that 41% of manufacturers believe that the flexibility to add/change bandwidth capacity in near real-time is a top reason for SDN/SD-WAN investment.
The survey also showed that 31% of manufacturers say optimized WAN traffic for latency, jitter, and packet loss is another top reason for SDN/SD-WAN investment and is considered very important for managing factory floor equipment in real-time.
Intel has deployed SDN in roughly 15% of its factories to date and will continue to migrate existing Ethernet-based factories to SDN. For new implementations, Intel has chosen to use open source Ansible playbooks and scripts from GitHub to accelerate its move to SDN.
Intel certified Cisco’s ACI solution in time to deploy in high-volume factories built in Ireland and the US in 2022 and for more planned in Arizona, Ohio, New Mexico, Israel, Malaysia, Italy, and Germany in the coming years, according to the company.
Intel’s core partner on the SDN project is confident the benefits will continue to have a sizable benefit — even for a company of Intel’s size.
“The biggest benefit is that SDN helped Intel complete new factory network builds with 85% less headcount and weeks faster through the use of automated scripts,” says Carlos Rojas, a sales and business developer who worked on the project. “Automation and SDN enable better scalability and consistency of security and policy controls, and the ability to deploy micro-segmentation, improving Intel’s security posture and reducing attack surfaces.”
CIO 100, Manufacturing Industry, Networking, SDN