Industry 4.0

The IT-OT Convergence: Benefits, Challenges, and Strategic Initiatives to Ensure Success

February 2024

The central dilemma faced by manufacturing organizations today is to efficiently secure the two realms they deal with:

  • the physical OT world, including machines, ICS systems, and other industrial equipment,
  • and the IT domain, encompassing servers, networks, and devices.

Historically, these two worlds have operated in isolation and under the supervision of separate professional figures. That’s no longer the case today.

Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) are now converging with the development of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), enabling the exchange of OT data with IT resources to monitor events, processes, and devices and generally control industrial operations.

 

What Is the IT-OT Convergence?

The expression IT-OT Convergence refers to blending information technology (IT) systems with operational technology (OT) systems to merge the data collected from OT operations and digital IT networks. Through this convergence, organizations can implement a holistic approach to monitor the overall tech environment and inform business operations.

The IT-OT Convergence is an essential element for Smart Factories in the Industry 4.0 era and a core component for modern manufacturers who need a connected infrastructure to manage every aspect of their production facilities in real time.

 

What are the Benefits of the IT-OT Convergence?

  • Better control via real-time monitoring:
    Live insights from your production environments give you higher visibility and auditing capabilities to make data-driven decisions based on the converged data (and improve compliance with regulatory standards).

  • Improved asset management, process automation, and performance efficiency:
    From equipment handling to resource utilization, from maintenance scheduling to regulatory compliance and safety measures – with real-time OT data, you can more easily identify areas where there is room for improvement or automation.

  • Lower expenses and higher cost-efficiency:
    Ongoing data analytics paves the way for predictive maintenance – which, in turn, leads to reduced development, operational, and support costs.
    Similarly, real-time monitoring lets you recognize patterns and anomalies to avoid unplanned downtime.
    Another way this convergence drives cost savings is the improved collaboration between the IT and OT departments, who can share expertise when managing the converged technology and run less siloed operations.

 

What are the Main Challenges of the IT-OT Convergence?

Outdated OT systems
Some OT systems can be used for decades, unlike their IT counterparts that have shorter lifecycles.

Additionally, legacy OT might not be periodically updated, and it usually lacks security capabilities and features to face new, emerging risks.

Therefore, when converging IT and OT, OT equipment requires a thorough security evaluation to ensure it’s up to date to address security vulnerabilities or assess whether it might need replacement.

Inadequate accessibility
While most IT can, by design, be discovered and configured remotely, OT systems often don’t offer similar visibility by default – as they were not originally designed for remote accessibility and standardized communication.

Moreover, the distributed nature of OT environments translates into a larger attack surface. Thereby, the need for administrators to see and manage all OT devices needs to be met – which is usually done via hardware gateway components connected to OT appliances.

Non-negotiable requirements
OT systems typically fulfill mission-critical demands by operating continuously, 365 days a year.

Imagine an air traffic control system in an airport needing to function continuously to ensure the safe and efficient movement of flights; shutting it down could lead to significant disruptions in air traffic. Due to their time-sensitive obligations, these systems must function 24/7 and cannot be halted for upgrades without substantial financial losses or physical risks.

The challenge lies in addressing security vulnerabilities while minimizing downtime, as critical functions cannot afford service interruptions for updates.

Limited collaboration
In the past, IT and OT departments have not needed, nor have they been required, to collaborate much; therefore, they are not used to cross-function teamwork. The lack of coordination can lead to duplicated efforts, security risks, and inefficiencies.

Mutual support and joint efforts are today necessary to ensure smooth communication and cooperation.

System integration and process convergence
Just like IT and OT teams have historically been separated, re-organizing traditionally siloed IT and OT processes into a unified, synergetic infrastructure might be challenging. Although the convergence of IT and OT holds significant potential for enhancing business processes, there can be notable barriers to its implementation.

Overcoming these obstacles may involve reshaping the dynamics between IT and OT, investing in new tools, or upgrading existing ones.

 

Strategies and Best Practices for Successful IT-OT Convergence

Here are a few recommendations to guide your approach to the IT-OT Convergence:

1. Get stakeholders’ buy-in and align on objectives and responsibilities:
The definition of organizational, technical, and operational objectives should be the key starting point of an IT-OT strategy. By fostering information sharing and efforts alignment, you should define and clearly communicate the overall goals, roles, and duties across the IT and OT departments.

2. Acknowledge the inherent differences between OT and IT:
OT systems have a larger real-world impact than IT, they require far higher responsiveness than the latter, they might need hardware gateway components to be connected to the converged infrastructure, and they make up for a larger attack surface. All these characteristics need to be kept in mind from the get-go to ensure the success of your IT-OT Convergence.

3. Narrow the gaps between IT and OT and facilitate collaboration:
To ensure that each department is aware of how their work interacts and overlaps with the other, OT professionals need to be up to speed in IT processes, and IT professionals need training in OT operations.

4. Equip your facilities with the right tools:
The optimal effectiveness of IT/OT convergence is achieved when the connected devices in a facility seamlessly integrate with the technology stack of the operations team. The goal is to ensure that necessary data appears in the familiar interfaces where they typically manage and control operations, such as their ERP, remote access solutions, and other tools. Otherwise, technicians may find themselves navigating through multiple portals and solutions, leading to the risk of overlooking critical information.

5. Train, test, repeat:
When designing, developing, and implementing an IT-OT convergence architecture, make sure to cross-train IT and OT professionals and allow for a proof-of-concept period where you can uncover management and security issues and address them. Similarly, after deploying and operating the converged environment, you’ll need to periodically review your infrastructure and evaluate potential updates hand-in-hand with technological advancement.

Secomea is an IIoT solution purpose-built to help manufacturers navigate the IT-OT Convergence. Book a short call with us to hear how we can support you in your digital transformation journey!

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