The Coming Convergence of IT and OT

As the Internet of Things (IoT) proliferates across industries, the need for greater collaboration between IT and OT is bringing inter-departmental convergence one step closer to reality.

As the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to grow, the industrial sector is making moves to integrate two departments that have historically functioned as two separate entities. The shift toward converging Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) departments has happened quickly in response to the increasing digitization of OT. Back in 2016, about two-thirds of manufacturers believed the IoT would be impactful for their business in the next five years — but only 5% had a significant understanding of how to implement these devices. Now IDC predicts that over 40% of manufacturers will have digital transformation initiatives in place within the next two years — all of which will include some degree of IoT investment. 

The transformative potential of Industrial IoT implementations is seemingly infinite, both on the factory floor and in the C-suite. Instead of manually and intermittently checking temperature sensors, for example, digital temperature sensors can continuously provide temperature readouts and initiate alerts only when necessary. IoT-enabled predictive maintenance for industrial machinery can prevent accidents before they occur, while toxic gas monitors can ensure consistent air quality. Meanwhile, operational analytics allows decision-makers to adjust business processes, shift resource allocation, and take proactive steps to avoid costly production bottlenecks.

The benefits of converging IT and OT departments are clear. With the digitization of operational technologies, the need to connect, provision, and secure these devices — and manage the data they’re producing — means IT teams must have an increasing if not primary role in their design, deployment, and management. But converging these historically distinct departments comes with a tremendous number of challenges — challenges both technical and cultural. 

As IT teams bring connectivity and IoT devices to the factory floor, these historically separate departments are tasked with aligning their processes, their goals, and their capabilities. Although many enterprises are still in the early stages of this convergence, the massive competitive advantages enabled by high-level digital transformation will drive ever-greater strategic cooperation between IT and OT departments. And enterprises will need to manage this convergence carefully, thoughtfully, and with an eye toward organizational alignment around commonly-shared objectives.

An IT Professional's Guide to Operational Technology (OT)

While the traditional domain of Information Technology (IT) covers the management and processing of electronic data, Operational Technology (OT) is responsible for the hardware and software used to monitor and run an organization’s physical processes. Essentially, the OT department is focused on ensuring that machines stay productive, functional, and safe, with minimal downtime and optimal efficiency. 

OT systems are found in manufacturing plants, warehouses, hospitals, utilities, transportation and logistics environments, and every stripe and color of industrial enterprise. OT professionals manage physical equipment — everything from conveyor belts to valves and engines — ensuring that factors like temperature, pressure, and output stay within the appropriate operating thresholds. 

OT teams may be responsible for the systems that handle hazardous materials or maintenance operations that prevent dangerous and costly breakdowns. While many of these devices and systems are digitized, they have traditionally been essentially closed and manual systems — in other words, not connected to a network. Gathering operational data, as when keeping equipment logs, represents a crucial function of OT departments in terms of meeting compliance standards and ensuring safe and productive environments. But again, this data has historically been captured and managed manually and outside of the domain of IT.

In contrast, IT departments focus primarily on data as it is generated, stored, moved, processed, and utilized within networked environments. IT does of course have a physical component, as IT teams are tasked with managing hardware infrastructure in the form of network components and user endpoint devices. Increasingly, however, they’re being tasked with also managing IoT devices — many of which fall under the umbrella of operational technologies. This is where IT and OT begin to converge. As IoT devices and edge computing become cheaper and more powerful, businesses are choosing to bring connected devices to factory floors, both to gather data and to enable the automation of industrial processes.

As formerly unconnected operational assets are brought online, enterprises are realizing that neither IT nor OT departments alone are prepared to manage all the implications of this shift. Gathering data and ensuring secure network connections are IT concerns. But IT doesn’t necessarily understand the functions — or the dangers —- of valves, belts, and boilers. With this convergence, the question is: how can IT and OT work together to keep industrial processes secure (both physically and digitally) and functional, while implementing new IoT technologies? While the traditional domain of Information Technology (IT) covers the management and processing of electronic data, Operational Technology (OT) is responsible for the hardware and software used to monitor and run an organization’s physical processes. Essentially, the OT department is focused on ensuring that machines stay productive, functional, and safe, with minimal downtime and optimal efficiency. 

OT systems are found in manufacturing plants, warehouses, hospitals, utilities, transportation and logistics environments, and every stripe and color of industrial enterprise. OT professionals manage physical equipment — everything from conveyor belts to valves and engines — ensuring that factors like temperature, pressure, and output stay within the appropriate operating thresholds. 

OT teams may be responsible for the systems that handle hazardous materials or maintenance operations that prevent dangerous and costly breakdowns. While many of these devices and systems are digitized, they have traditionally been essentially closed and manual systems — in other words, not connected to a network. Gathering operational data, as when keeping equipment logs, represents a crucial function of OT departments in terms of meeting compliance standards and ensuring safe and productive environments. But again, this data has historically been captured and managed manually and outside of the domain of IT.

In contrast, IT departments focus primarily on data as it is generated, stored, moved, processed, and utilized within networked environments. IT does of course have a physical component, as IT teams are tasked with managing hardware infrastructure in the form of network components and user endpoint devices. Increasingly, however, they’re being tasked with also managing IoT devices — many of which fall under the umbrella of operational technologies. This is where IT and OT begin to converge. As IoT devices and edge computing become cheaper and more powerful, businesses are choosing to bring connected devices to factory floors, both to gather data and to enable the automation of industrial processes.

As formerly unconnected operational assets are brought online, enterprises are realizing that neither IT nor OT departments alone are prepared to manage all the implications of this shift. Gathering data and ensuring secure network connections are IT concerns. But IT doesn’t necessarily understand the functions — or the dangers —- of valves, belts, and boilers. With this convergence, the question is: how can IT and OT work together to keep industrial processes secure (both physically and digitally) and functional, while implementing new IoT technologies?

The Historical Wall Between IT and OT

In a sense, “operations” first became a consideration in the late 19th century, as the industrial revolution led to the widespread development of large-scale manufacturing systems and methodologies like Ford’s assembly line. Operational technology has evolved since then, with digital systems first employed at the planning level. The first processing unit actually put under some form digital control was Texaco’s Port Arthur refinery, in 1959, and as soon as 1962, plants were allowing computers to control thermostats and pressure valves directly. 

Even with these extensive technological advancements, there was little need for IT to get involved. The focus was on functionality as opposed to connectivity. Access control was the main security concern, and this could often be achieved with things like air gapping, or simply not connecting machines to a network. Although businesses could take the time to gather and use information about operational processes, there was no streamlined data connection between the factory floor and business analytics. 

Historically, IT became increasingly relevant for the manufacturing industry throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, and especially with the rise of the Internet in the ‘90s. IT evolved to manage the flow and use of operational information, and the scope of their remit has only grown. With the IoT and increased connectivity, enterprises are now especially eager to generate and leverage data insights whenever and wherever possible. That means using a new generation of tools to gather and analyze data for the optimization of both OT processes and business operations, in what some are calling the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (or “industry 4.0”). 

The Coming of IT-OT Convergence

The IT/OT convergence is rapidly unfolding. IDC predicts that demand will drive global IoT spending to $745 billion in 2019, a 15.4% increase over 2018. Of this, discrete and process manufacturing together are projected to invest some $197 billion, with utilities spending another $61 billion. At the same time, average costs are falling precipitously — from $1.30 per IoT sensor in 2004, to a projected $0.38 in 2020. 

The capabilities of IoT technologies in the industrial space — also known as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) — are too promising for businesses to ignore. The volume of actionable data that next-generation IoT systems promise goes way beyond the current visibility that OT departments have access to. With a massive arrays of sensors and smart devices, it is now possible to gather, log, and analyze data on just about every aspect of the industrial process.

With data analytics, companies can optimize their manufacturing processes and unearth solutions to inform long-term high-level business planning. IoT devices can enable automation, improve worker safety, and reduce labor costs. Production can be made faster and more consistent. At the same time, predictive analytics can make the manufacturing process more flexible and more cost-effective, delivering the capacity to adjust to increasingly volatile supply chain demands.

These capabilities cannot, however, be realized until IT and OT learn to coordinate — and in some cases converge — bringing their capabilities, their objectives, and their technologies into a workable alignment. The upshot for IT professionals will be a new slate of challenges — and opportunities. 

What Convergence Will Mean for IT Teams

For IT teams, interfacing with OT means entering a new domain. Understandably, OT departments may feel territorial and have a hard time adjusting to having IT teams on their floor and in their workflows. As IT departments expand their capabilities, they should keep in mind the importance of clear communication, and recognize the unique needs and challenges of the industrial space. 

In many ways, dealing with the rise of the IIoT raises the same concerns as those of the IoT. Adding thousands of new (and often poorly-secured) connected devices to the network inherently opens the door to security breaches. IT will need to identify, authenticate, and secure the many new devices on the network to avoid the rising threat of data breaches that are only becoming more costly as industrial data stores grow larger and more valuable.

Networks not only have to be designed for fast, reliable connectivity but also for security — that means, at minimum, better encryption between devices. IT will have to impress upon OT teams that their systems will be more vulnerable to data theft, and provide them with the education and the tools needed to keep their data and their systems safe. 

On the other hand, the Industrial IoT comes with especially high stakes. Security breaches of IIoT systems can have particularly dire consequences, as malfunctions can cause not only financial losses but physical harm as well. If hackers gain access to dangerous equipment, any malfunction could pose a major threat to workers and physical assets alike. Emergency controls need to function 100% of the time in order to be effective, and electrical grids must have 100% uptime. The Department of Homeland Security has even recognized these threats, having recently made recommendations on how to best protect industrial systems, including time-limited remote access and network segmentation. 

In aiming to protect and optimize operations, IT departments will have to ask OT about their concerns and practices. They may have to follow unfamiliar protocols and adjust to specific physical conditions. IT should be aware that many industrial systems may be outdated or customized to the extent that they cannot easily be configured with typical security protocols. At the same time, many of these legacy machines may be too expensive to outright replace, and a workaround may be necessary. 

IT must also interface with OT to better understand any current industrial control systems (ICS) in place. A number of specific technologies have arisen within the ICS space, including supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), industrial automation and control systems (IACS), and programmable automation controllers (PACs). IT will need to understand and help configure these systems in a way that does not impede operational goals. 

In some cases, OT concerns may have to take priority over IT goals. IT may want to pause processes to update software or security, but they may have to live with a rejection. In some cases, industrial downtime is much more expensive than typical network downtime. If a crucial industrial component gets taken offline, it can mean thousands of dollars lost every minute. In addition, for OT, factors like machine availability and integrity are often more crucial than data privacy. Availability means having control over a machine, and if that’s lost, the physical impact can be immediate, dangerous, and costly. Given the extent to which OT teams may prioritize uptime over cybersecurity, both departments will have to align around how best to balance conflicting priorities. 

Despite the advantages of implementing IoT devices, drawing together IT and OT departments ultimately requires bridging substantial cultural differences. It all comes down to good communication. IT teams will need to communicate with OT to understand how their missions both fit within the company’s broader objectives, and lay out a roadmap that clearly defines each team’s responsibilities. Decision-makers from both sides can begin by pinpointing challenges like remote monitoring and create a cross-functional (i.e. “converged”) team that can share expertise and develop collaborative plans of action.

Easing the Transition for IT/OT Convergence

Bringing these historically distinct departments into strategic partnership will be crucial for companies looking to reap the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution. But any organizational adjustment as large as this will come with its share of challenges. IT departments already have a lot on their plates, and expanding their scope into entirely new domains in the midst of rising demand — not to mention a growing IT skills shortage — will not be easy. The fact that IT-OT convergence will come with ancillary challenges in the way of new physical and cybersecurity threats will make raise the stakes even further.

For this reason, the best course of action for many companies will be to partner with a managed services provider that holds the expertise, the talent, and the engineering bandwidth to streamline the process of inter-departmental convergence. At Turn-key Technologies, Inc. (TTI), we have over thirty years of experience designing, deploying, and managing cutting-edge networks built for success in the era of Industry 4.0. We can help ensure that your network is optimally architected with the right security measures, the appropriate bandwidth requirements, and reliable wireless coverage.

With our managed services programs, you can rest assured that your industrial IoT networks will be designed and managed with careful consideration given to every unique aspect of your operation. As the industry moves toward digital transformation, the companies that develop the right partnerships — and find the right guidance — will rise above the competition with enough staying power, perhaps, to see the dawn of Industry 5.0.