The Internet of Things (IoT) is forcing the worlds of Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) together as new environments like smart buildings link their OT systems to the information super-highway.
The convergence of OT and IT is not a smooth one, however, issues surrounding business structure, skills shortages, data silos, cyber security and standards plague the process. As most firms are not set up to manage new technology themselves, the perceived complexity forms a major hurdle facing the development of those smart environments.
“Despite the sizable number of positive business impacts IoT devices can have on businesses, many organizations have balked at the idea of deploying IoT devices and control systems, citing an overwhelming level of complexity and a lack of personnel with IoT training as their reasoning,” says Jeff Hussey, President and CEO of Tempered Networks. “The gap in IoT skills is a direct result of the IT - OT convergence. Unfortunately, bridging that gap isn’t an easy equation. Simply adding IT staff to an OT team does not produce the correct answer.”
Convergence is not just about putting IT and OT staff in the same room, nor is it about training one group in the skills of the other. IT + OT does not equal IoT. Convergence is about bringing together disparate domains and giving birth to a new breed of staff that have roles in the within the cyber-physical, highly-connected, and intelligent, IoT domain.
Consultancy firms are now advising that organizations unify separate IT and OT areas under a common data, application and technology environment. Many, like Boston-based ARC Advisory Group, believe that IT-OT may be the most important factor in the success of an organization’s digital transformation, a process that will determine the success of a company in the modern business landscape.
“Traditionally, even within the same enterprise, OT and IT represented separate domains with different components, objectives, characteristics, management practices, challenges, and organizational and reporting structures,” says Paul Miller, Editorial Director at ARC. “While OT typically focused on the safe operation and control of physical devices and processes, IT typically focuses on data, information, information management, and communications. IT-OT convergence is being seen and felt in companies across the world.”
IT and OT are different in some fundamental ways. Each works in different channels, with IT typically reporting to the CIO and OT under the responsibility of the COO. IT is driven by the optimization of data quality and flow, whereas OT focuses much more on safety and minimizing downtime. Siloed knowledge is retiring rapidly with the baby boomer generation that dominated the OT landscape, while tech-savvy millennials are not attracted to old-fashioned OT roles. Neither IT nor OT sectors lack industry standards but not enough “cross-pollination” has occurred to developed a regulatory environment that facilitates convergence. This is all beginning to change, however.
“Organizational and procedural challenges are gradually being resolved through closer cooperation between the two groups,” says Miller optimistically. “This begins with establishing a shared vision between the two constituencies, leading to assignment of experts from the IT group to work directly with enterprise- or even plant-level OT groups and vice versa. Although far less common, there are also examples of assignment of operations personnel to the IT function to help develop the needed skills.”
This convergence is not a new process, the worlds of IT and OT have long been trying to find the formula to coexist in the growing number of cyber-physical environments. When IT first began to be introduced to OT systems, in the late 80s, automation suppliers felt the need to “industrialize” the IT technology for easier adoption into the OT realm. Ethernet-based control networks were named “serial backplanes” and real-time computing devices were called programmable logic controllers (PLCs) just so they would be allocated to and accepted in the OT domain.
This friction, and strategies to avoid it, continued until the emergence of the IoT, which escalated the situation into a forced, and somewhat reluctant, convergence as IT reaches into every corner of traditionally operational environments. “Con-verge” is Latin for “together-incline,” which suggest a level of equality, but this “convergence” feels much more like a colonization of OT by IT, creating challenges for both.
OT must accept the presence and “rule” of IT, but the colonization will fail unless IT gains from the local knowledge of the OT inhabitants and integrates with their various communities. IT, the new world superpower, still has a lot to learn about the real world from the long-standing OT sector.
“Initially, cultural, organizational, operational, and technological constraints slowed the convergence of OT and IT for plant and field level automation. But over time, many of these constraints have either faded away or largely been overcome and IT/OT convergence is proceeding at a rapid pace,” claims Miller. “By unifying the previously separate IT and OT domains into a common data, application, and technology environment, IT/OT convergence also plays a key enabling role in the overall digital transformation that will be a prerequisite for industrial (and other) organizations to thrive and remain competitive in the years to come.”