We might not talk about Operational Technology – OT – as much we do IT, but it is a critical cog in so much of what we take for granted. OT is, after all, the hardware and software that keeps things like factories, power plants, oil rigs and facility equipment running.
In recent years, as Industry 4.0 has grown from concept to reality, there has been increasing talk about the convergency of the two. “Once considered separate business domains employing their own unique protection systems, Operational Technology (OT) and Information Technology (IT) functions have begun to converge because of shared cybersecurity concerns,” one report notes.
This is something that Siemens, which is heavily involved in the convergence of IT and OT, has also noted, because for modern systems to operate to the best of their ability, the complete technology environment needs to be linked, collaborative, and secure. “Secure communication and data exchange between IT and OT is the backbone of any digitalization strategy,” Leonie Wong, Siemens Head of Digital Enterprise, said in an exclusive interview with IDG. “Having reliable and secure data exchange needs to consider that these two types of networks, although they’re both Ethernet-based, do have different requirements.”
When reliability is an existential concern
Despite the convergence of IT and OT, as Wong said, OT requires a different focus, and as organisations try and operate with these increasingly dynamic and converged environments, the additional pressures that are placed on an OT environment need to be kept top of mind and always accounted for.
“If email services are unavailable for a few hours, it’s considered largely an inconvenience,” Wong said. “If there’s a disruption in critical infrastructure, such as a water plant or a power plant as an example, that’s much more consequential in terms of elements of essential services and potentially even elements of public safety.”
A good example of this was earlier this year, when IT systems at a major American fuel pipeline were compromised by ransomware. Out of concern for the impact this might have on the OT environment, the pipeline operator pre-emptively shut the OT environment down, but this caused widespread social panic and in its haste to restore operations, the company was forced to pay a $US5 million ransom to recover their systems. The OT environment was fine, but the interconnectedness with the IT environment has shone a renewed light on the security and availability of OT.
“The convergence can bring in tremendous benefit to organisations, especially in terms of increasing business and operational efficiencies, while also reducing costs which is becoming an increasingly important factor for a lot of organisations,” Serge Maillet, Siemens Country Segment Manager – Industrial Networks & Cyber Security, said in the same interview. “Organisations in all industry verticals are now considering IT and OT convergence as one of the key enablers to support the journey towards industry 4.0 in terms of hyper automation, optimisation, and real time actionable intelligence.
“However, it does come with its own set of challenges. If you’re going to do convergence, you must do it right or else, you probably shouldn’t do it at all.”
As Maillet notes, this is particularly true on the security side of things. “Inadequate cybersecurity measures and controls will only compound this problem and increase the attack surface with IT and OT convergence”, Maillet said. “The risks of an improperly designed secured and managed converged IT/OT infrastructure, certainly do not outweigh any of the benefits underpinned by the business and operational efficiencies gained by convergence.”
Taking advantage of the opportunity
With the right IT environment supporting the OT environment, IoT devices, an Ethernet-enabled LAN, and cloud and edge deployments, OT operators have access to unprecedented capabilities. For example, data collection and advanced analytics can be leveraged to run a more efficient operation.
“The improvements to data collection, reliability, and industrial communication networks that are well architected and designed and implemented, become the backbone of the digitalization strategy,” Wong said. “These networks provide the interconnectivity between what were once islands of automation, and break down the operational silos that can exist within an operation.
“An industrial IoT strategy usually has a primary goal to drive greater transparency and visibility of an operation. By having the ability to connect to assets, collect data, and provide real time insights, the business can enable good, data-driven decision making, instead of just doing things on gut feeling.”
Industry 4.0 is no more avoidable than the previous waves of industrial revolution. Organisations that can’t adapt will be left behind. That means the convergence of OT and IT, and organisations will need to grapple with the challenges that are inherent with that, while capitalising on the many opportunities it also provides.
For more information on Siemens’ work in OT and the hyperconvergence with IT, click here.