Cybersecurity

Securing Operational Technology (OT): Difference between OT and IT, OT Cybersecurity, and Best Practices

February 2024

In industries like manufacturing and industrial automation, Operational Technology (OT) security is paramount – just like Information Technology (IT) security, or even more so, considering the potential damage and disruption ineffective OT security can cause.

Cybersecurity breaches in both IT and OT have dire outcomes for a company. One can lead to data theft, loss, or misuse – and the other can completely halt production, cause physical injuries, and trigger devastating economic and social impacts.

Thus, the importance of robust security measures in both domains is a priority no company can overlook. And that is especially true for manufacturers, who are increasingly embracing digital transformation by leveraging use cases empowered by the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

 

What is Operational Technology (OT)?

Operational technology (OT) refers to the use of hardware and software to monitor and control industrial equipment and mainly interact with physical processes, devices, and infrastructure.

OT systems are employed by a wide range of sectors, and with vast predominance in manufacturing floors – where Industrial Control Systems (ICS), a subset of OT, are prevalent.

Industrial Control Systems (ICS) are OT applications specifically designed for real-time control, automation, and monitoring of industrial processes.

ICS often include components like SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) systems, PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers), HMIs (Human-Machine Interfaces), robotics, communication networks, etc. – all tailored for industrial process control to ensure the safety, reliability, and efficiency of critical operations.

 

OT vs. IT: The Difference Between Operational Technology and Information Technology

Below are some key differences between IT and OT systems:


Primary Field

The first difference between OT and IT is their dominion.

OT technology controls and manages real-world objects and physical systems, while the IT infrastructure deals with digital data.

That said, OT has its fair share of digital complements, and IT has its own physical components, such as server hardware.


Security concerns

OT and IT also have vastly different safety priorities.

OT security protects industrial manufacturing components by keeping them functional while preventing them from harming human operators or the environment.

On the other hand, IT primarily deals with protecting devices and data, such as user and business information, against external threat factors.


Fault Tolerance

OT and IT systems have varying requirements for fault tolerance and the ability to cope with downtime.

IT systems deal with downtime very well with minimal resource or production capacity loss. Even industry giants like Google and Facebook can have a downtime of a few minutes, and nothing significant will happen.

But the same isn’t true for OT systems. Operational technology needs high responsiveness and uptime because even a little jitter can cause massive fluctuations in the supply chain. That’s why OT systems need the ability to keep operating while isolating faulty segments as much as possible.


Hardware and Software Components

IT systems can usually operate using any standard consumer-grade operating system, save for a few cases like servers. Typically, these systems are more accessible to the general public.

On the other hand, OT systems almost always use proprietary software and hardware.

You can also upgrade the IT equipment quite easily as long as the manufacturer doesn’t discontinue support for the particular software. But OT systems very rarely get any upgrades because changing one component will require reconfiguring the entire supply chain.

That’s why high-end OT systems usually collaborate with operating system providers for extended support, far beyond what the general consumer gets. For example, Microsoft discontinued Windows 7 back in 2020, but they still provide security updates to OT systems built on that operating system and will continue to do so for a while.

 

OT Cybersecurity: Protect your OT systems from external threat factors

As every advancement in technology introduces new ways to exploit a system, ensuring cybersecurity should be a dynamic process where organizations constantly adapt to the threat types.

Admittedly, for the longest time, cybersecurity was only a focal point in the IT domain. OT environments rarely ever needed dedicated protection against cyber-attacks because they were primarily local systems with no network access.

But that all changed with IT-OT convergence. Now, OT appliances can use external networks for remote communication, maintenance, and upgrades, but this also exposes them to external threats on those networks. That’s why ensuring IT security is not enough. Now, there’s a need for dedicated OT security.

IT-OT converged systems are far more responsive than their disconnected counterparts and offer significantly elevated control over the system to the manufacturer. The only downside is the increased risk of cyber-attacks and espionage attempts. That’s why manufacturers are investing so much in OT security.

 

Industry Best Practices: What should you look for when selecting an OT Security Solution?

Medical, pharmaceutical, industrial machinery, food and beverage, and many other sectors use OT systems with robust OT network security to safeguard their manufacturing process.

Most OT systems are custom-made for each specific manufacturing plant. So, OT security companies often need to design a new safety configuration for each new system.

In other words, while you can buy off-the-shelf solutions, you should also keep in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all program cybersecurity program – therefore, the implementation should be designed to suit your specific OT environments and business needs.

That said, a few security features still work equally well on all systems. Any competent OT security solution needs to have these features, for they are considered best practices in the industry.


Zero Trust Framework

The zero-trust framework is a cybersecurity approach that blocks unauthorized entities and devices from accessing the OT network. It denies access to a company’s assets and only provides isolated access to authenticated users and devices – restricted to the specific applications, data, services, and systems required for their respective roles and responsibilities.

While this protocol introduces more steps to log in successfully (such as biometric and two-factor authentication), its security value is unmatched.


Micro-segmentation

Micro-segmentation helps add another layer of protection to the system by segmenting it into multiple sections. Creating different authority levels for different operators and employees will help protect the system from insider threats.

It also prevents accidents born from unawareness on the part of the employee. Giving untrained people limited access to sensitive parts of the system will prevent them from creating issues by mistake.


Network Mapping

Network mapping is defined as the process of discovering all the entities linked to a network, visualizing physical connections between various systems, and providing in-depth visibility into an organization’s infrastructure.

A good security system needs the OT security assessment capacity to monitor the entire environment in real-time. It needs access to all the network devices and advanced analytical capabilities to identify anomalies and prevent threats.

 

What makes Secomea the best solution for OT Security?

Secomea’s Secure Remote Access (SRA) solution is purpose-built for industrial networks and OT equipment.

Our solution seamlessly connects to any OT equipment, empowering organizations to secure cyber-physical systems.

Do you want to improve your OT security? Book a demo now and hear how you can use Secomea to fully control access to your industrial equipment (ICS, PLC, HMI, SCADA).

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