IT/OT convergence

IT/OT convergence is the integration of information technology (IT) systems with operational technology (OT) systems. IT systems are used for data-centric computing; OT systems monitor eventsprocesses and devices, and make adjustments in enterprise and industrial operations.

What's the difference between IT and OT?

IT includes any use of computers, storage, networking devices and other physical devices, infrastructure, as well as processes to create, process, store, secure and exchange all forms of electronic data.

OT, traditionally associated with manufacturing and industrial environments, includes industrial control systems (ICS), such as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA).

While IT inherently covers communications as a part of its information scope, OT has not traditionally been networked technology -- meaning connected to a larger network over the internet. Many devices for monitoring or adjustment were not computerized. Those with compute resources generally used closed, proprietary protocols and programmable logic controllers rather than technologies that afford full computer control. The systems involved often relied on air gapping for security. 

Types of IT/OT convergence

There are three main categories of IT/OT convergence:

  • Process convergence, which covers the convergence of workflows. IT and OT departments need to reform their processes to accommodate each other and make sure important projects are communicated. This is an organizational convergence, dealing with the structure of the internal business.
  • Software and data convergence, which deals with getting the software and data in the front office to work to address OT needs. This is a technical convergence, dealing with the network architecture of the business.
  • Physical convergence, which includes physical devices being converged or retrofitted with newer hardware to accommodate the addition of IT to traditional OT. This is an operational convergence, where the hardware itself is updated and maintained over time.

IT/OT convergence industry examples

Increasingly, sensors and connected systems like wireless sensor and actuator networks (WSANs) are being integrated into the management of industrial environments -- such as those for water treatment, electric power and factories. The integration of automation, communications and networking in industrial environments is an integral part of the growing internet of things (IoT).

Some industries that benefit from the convergence OT and IT include:

  • manufacturing
  • utility and energy companies
  • transportation
  • military and law enforcement
  • communications and media companies
  • retail
  • medical and pharmaceutical

IoT and IT/OT convergence

The internet of things, especially when paired with edge computing, enables the IT portion of IT/OT convergence. As mentioned, OT devices are not traditionally networked technology. IoT devices, by definition, are networked computing devices with the ability to collect, transfer and analyze data. Traditional OT devices, sensors for example, can collect data, but themselves cannot transmit the data over a large network or perform any sort of in-depth analysis on that data.

Newer smart sensors, however, would be able to collect the data from the source, like a factory floor, and transmit it to an IoT hub or gateway; which would then transfer that information to an analytics application or an enterprise resource planning (ERP) software platform, to be integrated into an organization's unified system of business operations. When networked, an OT device functions as an IoT device.  In the factory floor example, a sensor can collect operational data on materials or machines in the factory and send it over a wireless network to the back-end system application to be interpreted and trigger an action -- maintenance on factory equipment, for example.

The addition of edge computing capabilities to industrial internet of things (IIoT) devices allows for processing of real-time data closer to the source. Instead of sending the data over a network to a centralized location for processing, the IIoT devices can analyze time-sensitive manufacturing process data and return insights quickly for direct monitoring of industrial conditions, before it becomes obsolete. This is important because IIoT and OT devices are often part of a distributed network architecture, making transmission to a central processing location difficult or impossible. These devices are also often responsible for critical industrial systems, that, if shut down or interrupted, would incur severe consequences.

The addition of IT technology to OT allows organizations to make better use of data that's generated by OT through IoT devices and edge computing.

Benefits of IT/OT convergence

IT/OT convergence enables more direct control and more complete monitoring, with easier analysis of data from these complex systems, from anywhere in the world. This enables workers to do their jobs more efficiently and improves decision-making, as they have access to real-time insights that the data provides.

Some of the benefits of IT/OT convergence over separate IT and OT are:

  • Less siloed IT and OT departments, as the departments must share their respective areas of expertise to manage converged tech;
  • Reduced development and support costs, in part due to predictive maintenance enabled by IoT devices;
  • Faster time to market for converged technology;
  • Improved compliance with regulatory standards, because the addition of IT to OT allows for better visibility;
  • Improved automation and visibility into distributed OT, because OT gains the ability to transmit real-time maintenance data;
  • More efficient energy and resource usage; and
  • More efficient asset management.

Challenges of IT/OT convergence

Digital transformation requires organizations to reform most or all areas of the organization to be successful. OT's modernization through IT integration is no different.

steps of convergence
A diagram of convergence steps

One oft cited challenge of convergence is maintaining security. Many operational technology systems were never designed for remote accessibility, and as a result, the risks of connectivity were not considered. Such systems may not be regularly updated. Additionally, OT systems are often distributed in nature, and are often relied upon to uphold critical infrastructure. Their distributed nature makes for a larger attack surface. The vulnerabilities of OT systems can leave organizations and critical infrastructure at risk of industrial espionage and sabotage.

Other challenges of IT/OT convergence include:

  • Process convergence -- organizations may struggle with reorganizing previously siloed IT and OT departments to manage newly converged technology.
  • Secure IoT implementation -- oftentimes, IoT initiatives are not owned by any one department and communication of a new project may not reach all departments, especially in a more siloed organization. Typically, OT departments have limited knowledge of security, and IT has a limited knowledge of the projects currently underway. This can create a dangerous security gap.
  • Training -- only recently have certifications like The Cisco Certified Network Associate Industrial IoT been offered to help OT workers understand how the technology they are accustomed to intersects with networked technology. Before that, there was little in the way of standardized courses for manufacturing process control. This means that older systems and staff may have previously been adhering to standards that vary from organization to organization, causing compatibility issues.
  • Integration with existing systems -- the business side of an organization may be tempted to replace technologies instead of modernizing existing OT with IT technology. This defeats one of the benefits of convergence, which is cost efficiency. The point of convergence is to do more with what is available.
This was last updated in August 2020

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