The Convergence of IT and OT

By Luca Sinigaglia

In this blog, we explore the evolving area of systems convergence within the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) landscape and offer some solutions to the many challenges it presents.

The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to the network of physical objects made “smart” with electronics, sensors, software and network connectivity, allowing these objects to collect and exchange data. Industrial organizations realized the benefits of IoT and coined their taxonomy, characterization of application and use cases: the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

IIoT technology allows organizations to directly access plant, manufacturing and remote industrial device data. As more organizations move to adopt IIoT, Operational Technology (OT) and Information Technology (IT) are converging.

Operational Technology (OT)

OT comprises machinery, physical plant equipment, remote industrial software, and hardware. OT professionals focus on systems used for monitoring and control. They are skilled in the use of Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs), Remote Terminal Units (RTUs), Human-Machine Interfaces (HMIs), Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems and embedded computing technologies.

Information Technology (IT)

IT includes any use of computers, storage, networking devices and other physical devices, infrastructure and processes to create, process, store, secure and exchange all forms of electronic data.

Towards IT/OT convergence

OT has started to adopt IT-like technologies progressively; thus, the convergence of IT and OT will bring clear advantages to companies, including cost and risk reductions and enhanced performance and flexibility. Moreover, increasingly stringent security requirements are pushing IT/OT collaboration.

Manufacturers and their industrial suppliers recognize that standards-based communication and homogeneous networking are key to optimized services, greater visibility and lower total cost of ownership.

Industrial Ethernet provides a common platform to improve Computer Integrated Manufacturing and offers a seamless cross-transfer of critical data between the plant floor and support offices. Benefits include:

  • Real-time network performance to develop deterministic systems
  • Security
  • Reliability
  • Manageability and ease-of-use features
  • Logical segmentation
  • Ability to add innovative technologies such as IT/OT convergence

The challenges of convergence

The OT/IT convergence market goes far beyond the connection of IT applications and physical assets. Digital business is focused specifically on peer exchange and communication between business (including process and information), people and physical things as equal entities. The digitalization of complex value chains is within companies, across companies and sometimes across industries. Digitalization is more than a market - it is a vision for future cross-industry models with a high degree of digital technologies and automation.

This means that different parties must collaborate efficiently across industrial initiatives' whole life cycle. In order to stand out and show more value, businesses try to make the best alliances and partnerships in the ecosystem.

For OT technical decision-makers, the solution priorities are as follows:

  1. Safety

    The solution must not cause injury or death and must not put the public or the environment at risk.

  2. Performance

    The solution must support the operational availability of the production facility.

  3. Security

    Often a lower priority since most OT systems are physically separate from IT and other connected systems.

  4. Cost

    Capital comes at a premium, and additional costs must add clear value that is understood by the plant manager.

For IT technical decision-makers, typical priorities are as follows:

  1. Security and Privacy

    Business and personal information must be kept safe at all times.

  2. Performance

    Capability to satisfy the real-time communication requirements of industrial automation and control systems.

  3. Availability

    Both the ability to limit the impact on operations of upgrading or maintaining the solution and the reliability of the supported base network infrastructure features to handle outages with minimal impact.

  4. Manageability

    Ease of configuring, maintaining, and fixing the solution.

  5. Compatibility

    How the network infrastructure supports various types of industrial communications and the devices, controllers, human-machine interfaces (HMIs), and applications already in use.

  6. Ease of integration

    Not just with enterprise applications but integrating remote or vendor expertise securely.

  7. Flexibility

    The ability to rely on common off-the-shelf equipment provided by a number of vendors and supported by common expertise (often found in the IT department).


Considerations for successful IT/OT convergence

  1. Security
    • Use Software-Defined Networking (SDN) for custom-built orchestration and smart security or off-the-shelf automation solutions for minimum deployment cost:
      • Security for industrial automation and control systems ensures the availability and integrity against cyber threats
      • IEC 62443 best practices for network and system security to assure that the process of specification, implementation and evaluation has been conducted in a rigorous manner
      • Multiple dynamic VLAN support
  2. Reliability and Resilience
    • Build-in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) network resiliency with fast fault recovery (~50ms)
    • Extended operating temperature
  3. Overall cost reduction (CAPEX)
    • Build your IT/OT converged networks, eliminating unnecessarily redundant controls of network infrastructure such as conduit, cables, switches and UPSs that will then simplify interoperability and security compliance.
  4. Manageability, operational cost reduction (OPEX)
    • Operate a unified management platform for provisioning and monitoring
  5. Easy integration and standards compatibility
    • Use a standards-based network device for:
      • High-performing Layer 2 and Layer 3 switching
      • Routing capability, including the most prevalent on IPv4/IPv6 networks like BGP, ECMP, OSPF, PIM, RIP
      • Extended MAC address table and multicast group support
    • Industrial protocols for integration with existing factory management tools:

Opportunities for IT/OT convergence

IoT creates new opportunities for convergence across all lines of business to transform existing business models and industrial sectors and opens new opportunities for disruptive technologies. Depending on the industry, convergence may be applicable to manufacturing plants, facilities management, department stores, airplanes or even hospital rooms and city services like waste collection. Many of these applications, such as water treatment, power generation and real-time video surveillance, require high quality of service (QoS) and low latency, requiring sophisticated network infrastructure to transport the data being collected reliably.

Security is critical to the success or failure of the IoT and IIoT markets. Systems have to be protected against the most common threats they face (such as unauthorized access or data manipulation), taking into consideration not only Availability, Integrity and Confidentiality security tenets but also Safety needs as they are cyber-physical devices.

A converged future

Industries developed and managed OT and IT as different areas with different authorities and responsibilities, maintaining separate technologies, standards, protocols, governance models and organizational units. Nevertheless, OT is progressively adopting IT-like technologies due to the benefits of improved decision-making with access to real-time data, cost and risk reduction.

To achieve these benefits IT and OT strategies must be harmonized, security and data must be managed centrally, and resources must be reskilled to merge the requirements of both disciplines. Via a successful IT/OT convergence, companies can exploit hidden potential in their supply chain by streamlining processes and increasing data transparency.

Data will come from various sources, including traditional internal business sources, IT and related systems, sensors, devices connected to the Internet, external social media sources, and other structured and unstructured data elements. Combining these sources for analysis will provide a basis for more comprehensive business monitoring, insight and control while also increasing efficiency.

Enterprises do not have all the skills to address the challenges associated with IoT, so participation in alliances and business and technology partnerships is mandatory. Allied Telesis pursues these opportunities by adding our competencies to ecosystems. We leverage our networking expertise to offer reliable communications and help to integrate diverse automation systems and connections to myriads of sensor-enabled devices.