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Next generation mining communications systems

Mine operators need a mission-critical network whose mining communications systems delivers both safety and profitability. Among other things, this innovative network will need to assure end-to-end, quality of service (QoS)-enabled, high-bandwidth connectivity from the in-pit and pit-to-port transport infrastructure, to loading terminals, to operating and data centers.

On top of that, mine operators will be looking for a converged network capable of consolidating disparate legacy networks typically based on time division multiplexing (TDM). That’s important because TDM networks have limited interface speed, as well as rigid bandwidth allocation. Both of these are poorly suited to the new bandwidth-intensive and bursty data applications used in mining operations.

What’s needed is a network transformation strategy. But how do mine operators get there, and what should be their top priorities? For starters, any transformation will likely involve the application of innovative technologies, including:

  • Automation
  • Mobile broadband
  • Analytics
  • Cloud computing

Automation promises to take mining operations to new levels of efficiency. Autonomous haulage systems will load, transfer, and dump ore without using drivers. In the same way, autonomous drilling systems will let mining companies automate and extend drilling operations to remote areas formerly considered too dangerous to mine.

In addition to that, mobile broadband will dramatically increase the data sharing speed and capacity across pit operations, improving productivity. It will also assist mining companies who, until now, have used narrowband mobility for voice communications and private mobile radio/land mobile radio (PMR/LMR) technologies for data applications.

With the introduction of mobile broadband, all this will change. Applications like real-time closed circuit TV and logistics tracking—key to optimizing and monitoring operations—will greatly benefit from radically increased throughput.

Analytics and cloud computing will also be part of the mine of the future. Whether it’s tracking commodity trading or the application of big data analytics techniques, mining operators want to access these rich veins of data all at once. This results in more pressure on data centers.

With cloud computing—also known as data center visualization—mining companies can consolidate and virtualize compute resources distributed across multiple data centers. This enables individual mining operations to run different applications with on-demand compute resources, lessening the burden on data centers.

Figure 1. Mining network transformation blueprint

Executing a successful network transformation blueprint (as shown in Figure 1), requires a trusted partner with a strong communications portfolio, including
IP/MPLS routers, optics, microwave equipment, and a software defined networking (SDN)-based data center network.

For most mining operations profiles, it also requires a network transformation vision that builds on 3 key pillars:

  • Modernizing the wide area network (WAN) from end to end
  • Evolving to broadband radio communications
  • Revamping the data center network

Let’s look more closely at each of these 3 pillars.

Pillar 1: Modernized WAN

For starters, modernizing the WAN end-to-end requires the deployment of a service-aware, converged, IP/MPLS network. Some operators worry that the implementation of a new network will eliminate support for existing applications and could even result in degraded performance.

But this worry can be easily addressed with a virtual private network (VPN) service capability that enables complete segregation among applications. What’s needed is a VPN portfolio capable of supporting VPNs at Layers 1, 2, and 3 with point-to-point or multipoint configuration. To prioritize and allocate sufficient bandwidth to the right applications and avoid performance degradation, advanced service-aware hierarchical QoS will be needed too.

For distributed operations, the mine of the future will also need a flexible transport technology to assure inter-site communication. The good news is that the latest generation of IP/MPLS routers can natively support a wide array of transport technologies, including packet microwave and WDM. In fact, with these routers, separate nodes need no longer be deployed. The transport layer can be consolidated—simplifying operations and network design.

As their business becomes more automated, mining operators will also be looking for mission-critical resiliency. A disruption in operations could result in major economic losses. For this reason, an IP/MPLS converged network delivers resiliency at various protocol levels, including nodal control and switching complex with hitless 1+1 protection. This encompasses non-stop routing and signaling, and services can be provisioned in a platform as compact as2 RU.

When considering an IP/MPLS converged network, mining operators should also look for a network whose transport infrastructure can be scaled to meet future traffic growth and application requirements.

Pillar 2: Evolve radio communications to broadband LTE

LTE is a broadband cellular technology. It has immense potential as a non-line of sight (LOS) radio technology for in-pit and pit-to-port applications. It can also complement existing PMR and Wi-Fi® radio networks.

Topping its list of strengths, LTE propagates better than legacy radio technologies — such as Wi-Fi and proprietary VHF or PMR — particularly in open-pit mine environments. To facilitate in-pit real-time machine-to-machine communications, LTE supports broadband speeds with QoS management. This means mine staff can access both broadband radio and high-definition video surveillance from anywhere in the pit.

LTE is also a highly reliable converged radio access network. It supports all data applications used in mining. And, with its imminent support for mission-critical voice, LTE can be extended to replace existing PMR/LMR radio systems. This further consolidates and simplifies mining communications systems.

Pillar 3: Revamp the data center with SDN/cloud computing

Traditionally expansion of compute capacity for data centers called for new, dedicated servers. This makes sense when supporting a single application and user. However, this approach is inefficient when application workloads are driven by variable mining cycles. This is leading operators to explore alternatives that will allow them to leverage server virtualization technology in the mine of the future.

Driven by adoption of the cloud computing paradigm, there’s a new approach called SDN to build data center networks. SDN connects servers, branch gateways, and branch location internal networks through a converged IP/MPLS network. Using virtualization technology, virtual machines (VMs) with the necessary capacity can be created and deleted on any server in any location — on demand. This makes compute resources dynamically consumable by different users and applications.

An SDN overlay network enables this new paradigm. Because it’s an agile data center network fabric, SDN can automatically respond to VM creation and movement by reconfiguring itself over the existing underlying network. This architecture reduces provisioning and configuration time from hours to only minutes — all without replacing the underlying network infrastructure. This is particularly relevant to multi-tenant data centers that serve mining operations teams with mines around the world.

Going 1 step further, a WDM-based service platform — a data center interconnect (DCI) optical gateway — can extend the Ethernet LAN and storage area networkover a wide area. Furthermore, it can also evolve to a SDN-based gateway to connect compute resources and servers in multiple data centers. The benefit? Site diversity, or geo-redundancy. This is crucial to allow for business continuity, as well as being part of a complete disaster recovery strategy.

Lastly, with this DCI connectivity, distributed computing/VM can be placed in any data center with the required compute capacity, adding further VM mobility and compute resource allocation flexibility. For instance, a distributed application can reside in multiple VMs in different centers that can be relocated to scale as needed.

Ready for network 2020

Taken together, all of this points the way to reimagining the mining communications paradigm. By working closely with network technology planners and professional services teams, mine operators can be confident that their mining communications systems will leverage innovations to meet the challenges of 2020, and beyond.

Related material

Re-imagine mining networks for 2020 and beyond white paper
LTE for mining: delivering ultra broadband in the middle of nowhere blog
Oil, gas, and mining web page

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Hansen Chan

About Hansen Chan

Hansen Chan is an IP Product Marketing Manager with a special focus on digital industries and government. He has worked with telecom service providers and critical infrastructure network operators worldwide for more than 25 years on protocol testing, network design and consulting, and product management. When he’s not talking networks, he’s reading up on history and religion, and listening to Baroque and 20th century classical music.

Tweet him @hchan888

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