There’s long been a divide between information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT). In fact, they’ve been miles apart, with IT managing the digital space and OT controlling the physical world. But the days of IT vs OT are ending, and the rise of the Internet of Things and the arrival of the Fourth Industrial Revolution means opportunities for IT/OT convergence that put insights from data and operational control into one shared environment.
Before looking at the convergence of the two, it’s important to understand what they are and why they’ve traditionally been divided.
What is information technology (IT)?
A good working definition of IT is any hardware or software related to computer technology. The purpose of an IT system is to deliver reliable, safe data management, including the ability to capture, secure, and share large sets of data, often in real time.
IT is a broad category for most organizations, and can include a variety of hardware and software platforms such as:
- Telephones and voice mail systems
- Video conferencing equipment and software
- Desktops and laptops
- Servers and operating systems
- Management software for scheduling
For IT, companies tend to implement ready-made solutions instead of developing their own. For example, the company computers run commercially available operating systems like Windows instead of something coded in house.
Another important feature of IT is that most companies allow most of their employees to access the solutions. Everyone in the office gets a phone and voice mail account. All the managers have access to the scheduling software.
At a modern factory, the facility and maintenance managers likely use a combination of facility and maintenance management solutions to keep everything up and running, including an integrated workplace management system (IWMS) and an enterprise asset management solution (EAM). They’re able to capture relevant data, ensure it’s safe and secure, and share it with their teams.
What is operational technology (OT)?
The definition of OT is the hardware and software an organization uses to monitor, change, or control equipment, processes, and events in the physical world.
Most of the time, you find OT in industrial settings, where the devices are more autonomous. For example, you can see a lot of OT on the average modern factory floor. Other industries that use a lot of OT includes water and waste control, telecommunications, and oil and gas.
It varies between industries and from one organization to another, but generally, there is a small number of specialists with access to the company OT. And unlike a lot of IT, OT software and devices run a long time between updates, from months to even years.
Also, OT tends to not be off-the-shelf solutions that run right out of the box. Instead, they can be custom software developed and maintained by the organization.
A helpful example of OT is Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA).
Example of OT: Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA)
SCADA is a type of industrial control systems (ICS) the includes computers, networked data communication, and different graphical user interfaces for supervision of process management. Basically, it’s a combination of software and hardware that helps you run industrial processes.
Using SCADA, you can:
- Control processes either locally or remotely
- Capture, process, and record data in real time
- Interact with devices like valves, sensors, motors, and pumps
Programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and remote terminal units (RTU) feed data into the SCADA systems from manual and sensor inputs. From there, it goes to an operational terminal or workstation.
What is IT/OT convergence?
It’s worth taking a step back and first looking at the more general idea of technological convergence, where an organization integrates and interoperates technologies to gain efficiency, reduce the risk of errors, and cut costs.
When you have more of your workflows running through the same system, there’s less time wasted jumping from one platform to the other and having to reformat data into a different standard. There’s also a lot less chance of error because you don’t have to worry about data either being corrupted as it travels between platforms or it not arriving at all.
IT/OT convergence is when you bring OT into the world of IT. Traditional OT devices were stand-alone systems, cut off from internal and external networks. Control was physical and direct: only a small, specific team of people could access the equipment, and they had to be right there beside it, working from a panel or workstation.
But thanks to the use of connected sensors and actuators, you can now set up your equipment to share relevant, real-time data with a central server.
What are examples of IT/OT convergence?
There are different types of convergence for IT/OT. In process convergence, and organization takes its existing processes for IT and applies them to OT. For example, they might have a set of specific requirements for data capture and storage, which they then use for their OT data.
With software and data convergence, you create new ways to combine OT and IT for better analysis. Physical convergence is when you retrofit existing equipment so you can connect it to your IT systems.
What are IT/OT convergence use cases?
But what does this look like across different industries?
In a manufacturing setting, you could tie IT on sales and inventory levels to production runs, increasing resource-use efficiency. For fleet managers, especially those with established routes, convergence can help with planning preventive maintenance and capital planning.
In the retail space, IoT devices like tags and cameras can help you capture data to optimize everything from inventory to sales floor layouts.
What are the challenges of IT/OT convergence?
Remember, OT has tended to be stand-alone systems with proprietary software that only a select few in the organization can access. Security comes from obscurity.
When you combine it with standard IT, though, you might be opening it up to all the same types of attacks. It’s possible to minimize these security threats, but as you begin to implement IT/OT convergence, you need to be aware of where things can go wrong.
One of the problems comes from asking the IT team and the OT team to work together, something they’ve likely not done a lot of before. They need to decide as a collective how best to collaborate to ensure they’re not overlooking anything.
Another issue could be the age of OT tech. With IT, most applications tend to be newer, with the security already baked in. When something new comes along, the IT teams run patches and updates. But for the OT team, they might still be running the same software from many years if not decades ago, leading to the possibility that the legacy software cannot be brought in line with current security standards.
It would be the same thing as trying to retrofit a Model T with modern safety equipment, including three-point seatbelts and airbags. There’s no way to do it.
Although there’s long been a strict division between information technology and operational technology, the trend is OT/IT convergence that promotes data sharing and new opportunities for faster, more centralized analysis and control.
Traditionally, IT is how you manage your computer technology, both the hardware and software. OT, on the other hand, is how you manage your equipment and processes in the real world. OT/IT convergence is bringing the two together, usually with the use of IoT networked sensors and actuators that feed information into a central platform.
Although there are opportunities for efficiency, security can be an issue. When you connect OT that has always been stand alone and has never been updated to a larger online network, the IT and the OT teams need to work together in new ways to ensure the system stays protected.