IT/OT convergence provides a path forward

Long before Industry 4.0 and cloud-connected architectures became possible, innovators championed PC-based technologies for industrial automation.

By Daymon Thompson November 12, 2019

As Industry 4.0 and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) concepts become real applications, exciting conversations include integrating information technology (IT) and operations technology (OT). Large IT companies have promoted ideas like workload consolidation for businesses to optimize processes and be more competitive in their respective industries. This excitement, boosted by some of the largest players in automation technology (AT) who are jumping on board, is well deserved. Greater system openness, real-time deterministic control with many-core processors, the incorporation of web technologies and machine learning (ML), among other advances, are possible by applying popular technologies to industrial applications.

IT/OT convergence continues to offer benefits to machine control architectures, as it has for more than 30 years. Many suppliers are only beginning to integrate PC-based technology into industrial automation. Even so, the history of IT/OT convergence in the context of automation technology dates back to the early 1980s with the advent of the modern PC and those who saw its potential for industrial use.

Of course, the adaption of these ideas follows the diffusion of innovations theory, which describes how new ideas and technologies are adopted in order by:

  • Innovators 2.5%
  • Early adopters 13.5%
  • Early majority 34%
  • Late majority 34%
  • Laggards 16%.

This theory helps provide perspective on how IT/OT convergence has evolved since the 1980s and where things are leading today.

PC-focused innovation in the 1980s

During this era, the larger technology world began to develop the PC and related technologies for more widespread business and consumer use far beyond the levels seen in the 1970s. These efforts led to transformations in standardized chip sets, board designs and eventually sophisticated operating systems. At that time, most industrial technology companies stayed far away from the PC path.

The large, predominately programmable logic controller (PLC) platforms were using proprietary chip sets, board designs and, in most cases, proprietary programming software. Traditional PLC technology for industrial machine control evolved much slower than it should have due to an industry-wide aversion to change. As a result, the paths of hardware PLCs and consumer and business-facing PCs would not converge for decades.

Most industrial vendors and manufacturers shunned IT technology on the plant floor at first, though smaller start-up companies recognized both technologies could coexist. These innovators foresaw how intermingling them could capitalize on the technological advantages of both sides and provide a high performance, universal platform for manufacturers and machine builders. Using proven industrial standards and emerging computer science innovations, smaller AT companies began the convergence of IT and OT in manufacturing.

Early adopters of the 1990s

In the 1990s, IT and OT technologies continued to advance. However, IT pioneers had surpassed traditional OT. The popularity of Microsoft Windows exploded, and it became ubiquitous in nearly every area of technology. Microsoft launched Visual Studio in 1997, which combined a number of programming languages in one convenient environment, which continues to evolve and remain important today. Industrial vendors that began implementing PC-based automation technologies in the previous decade saw significant gains in hardware and software performance, which far outpaced traditional PLCs. The successful companies created new tools for deterministic, real-time control designed to run on industrial PC controllers with standardized operating systems (OS).

Automation vendors that saw an opportunity researched and launched computer-based controls. However, these early adopters realized developing their own software from scratch and maintaining it was expensive. They started using some off-the-shelf real-time operating systems, but often didn’t promote them.

Sometimes this happened because the vendor didn’t really believe in the technology, and other times it was because the technology wasn’t reliable. Some notable crash-and-burns gave PC-based platforms a bad reputation during this time. The truth is, many platforms were providing strong results in the field and extending the lead in performance over traditional PLC technologies.

The early majority from 2000 onward

The turn of the millennium brought further developments in software and multi-core processors. Major players on the consumer side, like Intel, IBM and Microsoft, actively expanded into the OT realm. Likewise, a determined subset of the automation space kept integrating IT with increased real-time capabilities. This was happening when widespread IoT was still just an idea. Along with the automation and control advances, networking also was a major development.

The introduction of industrial Ethernet protocols, such as EtherCAT, created major performance improvements and a path forward from legacy fieldbuses. Industrial Ethernet is another example of IT and AT convergence, with Ethernet and fieldbus technology merging. Others were trying to port legacy fieldbus technology to run on Ethernet and, in the end, were not as successful. For example, TCP/IP technologies, created to drive non-deterministic, massive-scale networks, required extensive ancillary components and complicated configurations to create a high-speed, deterministic fieldbus.

However, EtherCAT eliminated the complexity and cost of switches and additional hardware while providing deterministic control with up to 65,535 devices per network. This resulted from the same PC-based control innovators carefully considering what industrial Ethernet could offer by combining the openness and acceptance of Ethernet with the functionality expected of industrial fieldbuses. This was a different approach than creating workarounds, such as expensive managed switches for old fieldbus protocols, without regard to bandwidth utilization, Ethernet frame efficiency or the number of plant-floor IP addresses.

Today’s late majority in IT/OT convergence

From automation software apps on smartphones to many-core CPUs with processors in industrial enclosures, the IT/OT convergence continues to accelerate in the age of IIoT and Industry 4.0. For another example, human-machine interfaces (HMIs) commonly rely on web technologies, and standards such as message queuing telemetry transport (MQTT) and JavaScript object notation (JSON) are being rapidly implemented in IIoT contexts.

Gigabit Ethernet technologies, such as EtherCAT G, are also becoming key as machines become more complex, and time-sensitive networking (TSN) is providing deterministic vertical communication to address the limits of non-EtherCAT fieldbuses. In addition, industry is beginning in earnest to apply ML and other artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, which already drives consumers’ online shopping experience, directions on their phones and their “app life” in general.

The rapid advances in consumer technology provide opportunities to deploy industrial technologies faster, but also introduce greater risks of falling behind when some controls vendors are slower to adapt. Not actively seeking out technologies that drive IT/OT convergence will lead to strategic disadvantages for tomorrow’s laggards.

The good news is the previous reluctance of manufacturers and machine builders to implement PC-based technologies continues to evaporate as they see the benefits of applying IT technologies where it makes sense. In any field of technology, this is a moving target, but companies driving this convergence understand the stakes. Automation vendors and machine builders can’t decide to throw untested IT technologies on a multi-million-dollar piece of equipment and hope for the best.

For companies that have championed IT/OT convergence as a fundamental design philosophy for years, it is clear any IT principle carried over to OT products must be deterministic, reliable, available for many years, and implemented in the most efficient way possible. Done correctly, IT/OT integration produces results far above what traditional platforms can accomplish alone.

It’s important to remember this IT/OT integration didn’t start with IIoT, and it won’t end there. As cloud-connected architectures and Industry 4.0 concepts become commonplace in factories around the world, it’s important to be aware of what’s next and of the technology leaders driving innovation in the industry. 

Daymon Thompson, automation product manager – North America, Beckhoff Automation. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media,


Keywords: information technology, operations technology, IT/OT convergence

IT/OT convergence is accelerating the age of the IIoT and Industry 4.0.

IT/OT convergence started in the early 1980s with the rise of the modern PC.

Some companies converged early while others did so as the technology improved and became more cost-effective.

Consider this

When did your company begin IT/OT convergence and what were the short-and long-term results?

Author Bio: Daymon Thompson, automation product manager – North America, Beckhoff Automation.