Understanding the convergence of IT and OT

Information technology (IT) and operations technology (OT) are converging to improve manufacturing operations, that can offer benefits such as improved productivity and security.

By Ashish Khushu, L&T Technology Services May 9, 2018

Information technology (IT) and operations technology (OT) coexist in many facilities, but they often don’t work together. It’s vital to understand the importance of converging IT and OT to optimize operations and to achieve the benefits of implementation.

Gartner defines OT as: "The hardware and software that detects or causes a change through the direct monitoring and/or control of physical devices, processes, and events in the enterprise."

OT is considered the backbone of modern-day smart factories. It controls the infrastructure that powers the plants and keeps factory lines running. The importance of OT is augmented as more machines and their components are connected. The Internet of Things (IoT) is blurring the gap between the top floor and shop floor by providing deep visibility of the factory floor in an instant.

IT is essential to all smart enterprises. From customer relationship management, to management information systems to emails, everything runs on an IT infrastructure. The worlds of IT and OT have coexisted, but often in silos, since the start of modern manufacturing. However, with the advent of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and integrating network sensors and associated software with complex physical machinery, the divide between IT and OT is rapidly dissipating.

A report released by Gartner in 2011 stated the worlds of IT and OT are converging and the benefits would include optimized business processes, enhanced information for better decision-making, reduced costs, lower risks, and shortened project timelines. 

Learning from IT/OT implementation

Many lessons can be learned as there are more advancements in technology to improve IT and OT implementation including:

Scale of implementation: Connecting billions of devices simultaneously was a major technological challenge in the past. This issue got resolved a decade ago with IPv6 that enabled trillions of devices to be connected and operate at the same time. Manufacturing plants also need thousands or tens of thousands of assets to be connected which brings in the aspect of the scale of implementation. This is the first lesson from IT implementers to those managing OT.

Enterprise IT implementations over the years have matured and have tested operating infrastructures where thousands of connected devices with different functionalities handle communications in a mesh network operating 24/7 seamlessly. It is possible to connect devices across different locations and scale this connectivity to thousands of assets.

Security: It’s possible to implement networks and get them to operate with the highest possible security. After all, security threats posed to them would probably be the most severe given the rewards involved for hackers. For example, when money is withdrawn from any ATM of any bank from any location across any country, it dispenses money in a predictable time. This activity involves various processes including:

  • Identifying, authenticating, and calculating how much the withdrawer has and how much the user can withdraw
  • Dispensing money based on the denominations of currencies available in the ATM
  • Simultaneous update of the bank account
  • Sends the withdrawer an instant text message of the transaction and balance.

The system does all of this in a very predictable manner. Billions of transactions occur day after day in a secure and cohesive fashion. This is how the IIoT functions; the internet is connecting numerous disparate devices with many cybersecurity measures.

Stability of the infrastructure: Enterprise IT has been around for decades and its wide adoption across industries has been made it possible because of the assurance of a predictable response in terms of quality and time, substantiated by individual/organizational experiences on daily basis. The reason for this is the infrastructure’s stability. This is where architectures come into play.

Stability has its own challenges such as adopting and changing technologies, platforms, products, evolving standards, proprietary products and standards, software, compliance, and regulatory challenges among others. The biggest lessons can be learned when companies or users are required to adopt or evaluate new technologies or standards. Architecture of the underlying hardware platform, connectivity infrastructure, applications and software that are chosen to buy or build, are primarily responsible for the stability of the infrastructure.

The guiding principles, in this case, must be architectures that should be scalable, modular, interoperable, and easily managed. More importantly, the architecture should allow partners and vendors who build or supply components to easily fit them into the architecture. The starting point should be the use cases that define the roadmap based on priorities and complexities. The interplay of the solutions architecture and the architecture of the enabling hardware and network infrastructure will help make this journey a lot smoother. 

Learning from IT/OT challenges

IT and OT have different backgrounds, but their conjoined applicability arises from the IIoT. However, there are two key challenges for both parties including retentive control of systems and machines and employee safety.

Sound security solutions should be in place with features including:

  • Identifying and authenticating all devices and machines: All devices within the system, be it within the plant or on the field, should be ensured. Only approved devices and systems should communicate with each other. This would lessen the risk of hacking, insertion of rogue and untrusted devices into the network, and mitigate unwarranted control of any systems or machines.
  • Encryption: Encrypting all communications between IT/OT devices would ensure privacy of the data being relayed.
  • Data integrity: Ensuring the integrity of the data generated from these systems is a high priority. Though smart analytics are a major driver in IIoT adoption, these are worthless if the data is inaccurate.
    • Manufactured goods also contain embedded software or firmware. Enabling the remote upgradation of these softwares and firmwares would ensure their integrity.

The future of IT/OT

There are plenty of opportunities going forward, as more devices start to join the IIoT network. The converging IT/OT will offer out-of-the-box integration solutions for plant automation, asset management and manufacturing execution systems with IT apps such as supply chain and enterprise resource planning (ERP) apps at the enterprise level and provide analytics. If the present trends continue, it is very likely that the separation between OT and IT would fade until they become potentially one and the same.

To ensure this, it’s vital both sides consider the other’s expertise and point-of-view and work together toward the the same goals of providing optimal security and productivity.

Ashish Khushu, CTO, L&T Technology Services, a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Emily Guenther, associate content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media, eguenther@cfemedia.com.


KEYWORDS: Information technology (IT), operations technology (OT)

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