Creating collaborative IT and OT ownership

There are conflicting views surrounding convergence of information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT).
Read time 3min 10sec
Conrad Steyn, iOCO’s Executive Partner for Mining, Energy and Industrials.
Conrad Steyn, iOCO’s Executive Partner for Mining, Energy and Industrials.

The bottom line is that they are limited in their convergence, and an organisation’s IT team and those responsible for the application of OT must collaborate and understand how these technologies work together.

“While there are differing opinions, the essence is that OT runs operations and is often vendor-specific or proprietary technology working in a real-time environment,” says Conrad Steyn, iOCO’s Executive Partner for Mining, Energy and Industrials.

“OT is more engineering- and production-based, encompassing such components as programmable logic controllers and sensors. IT augments OT systems.

“Leveraging OT comes from the sophistication of the OT component, at which point it becomes a combination of IT and OT. Granted, when you buy plant assets today, these come with some IT already built in, which is where crossover technology is converged automatically. Now we want to take it a step further with a plant asset ’talking’ to the cloud so that we are able to control remotely.”

Steyn says this is when a common governance framework needs to be in place that specifies the areas of responsibility in terms of plant engineers and IT specialists, which drives both specialist fields to work together. He stresses that it’s not about driving the same solution, but establishing a harmonious environment that understands the fundamental differences between OT and IT.

“This drives the vital need for cross-functional, inter-communicating teams that will network their different expertise and work together, while each remaining an expert in his or her field,” continues Steyn, “and this is where cultural challenges enter the mix and the differences between IT and OT become clearer.

“OT’s focus is on maximum production uptime. A simple patch upload can have a significant impact on production and bring safety concerns. With IT, on the other hand, a network update may be an inconvenience for a period of time, but no one runs the risk of having an industrial accident while this is implemented.”

This highlights the element of ownership. Essentially, the engineers own the OT and the production, safety and legal liability. IT owns IT. Steyn says some organisations have both reporting into a Chief Technology Officer who oversees both functions towards synergy.

Another change is that when purchasing an OT asset, this now needs to be compatible with the organisation’s IT infrastructure. This adds a whole new dimension to the data mining of assets. Previously, there was a lack of access to informative, in depth OTdevice data. Now there is a whole world of analytics available.

Steyn says IoT is driving a level of convergence, which “makes it more difficult for people to work in siloes, but easier and better for the organisation as they have to work together with similar objectives.”

This is particularly important considering the new era of security and cyber security, especially considering the vulnerability posed by edge devices used by OT.

“If both physical and IT security are not structured properly, anyone with malicious intent can try to access the network. This does not mean you shouldn’t have edge devices – they provide important data. It means that you need to take every possible security precaution,” stresses Steyn.

“Ultimately, however, deploying OT and IT in a coordinated and strategically aligned way opens a whole new world of information that can impact effective plant management and judicious decision-making,” he concludes.

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