OT and IT: bridging the gap

08 August 2016

Jeff Lund comments on the challenges of implementing an IoT initiative and offers tips for ensuring projects succeed.  

Manufacturers are Increasingly needing to invest time and money to make their factories and processes smarter and more productivity in a bid to remain competitive. The Internet of Things (IoT) is the next wave of technology that will help the industrial sector to achieve these goals. Connecting smart devices throughout a plant will allow companies to automate processes, better manage assets, and analyse real-time data from a variety of sources to make smarter business decisions and reduce costs. 

Enabling multiple devices to communicate with each other and with enterprise systems in this way is only possible with Ethernet and the Internet Protocol (IP). However, the resulting flood of data that comes with this requires a new level of collaboration between Information Technology (IT), which focuses on information processing, and Operational Technology (OT), which focuses on the devices, sensors and software that keep production running. 

Traditionally, these two disciplines have operated in silos. But, to ensure the success of IoT collaboration between IT and OT is vital to the success of IoT. Control engineers, as OT professionals, have a big role to play in ensuring successful convergence. 

Challenges include:
Different departments, different priorities – To an OT professional, availability will always be the top priority because shutting down manufacturing is potentially disastrous and definitely costly. It could cause safety issues, impact production levels and damage critical machinery. Indeed, system uptime often holds a higher priority than data integrity. For example, if a network security breach causes a system to shut down unexpectedly, it is more important to recover and restart the system – saving the data is secondary. 

When OT data crosses into the IT domain, and is integrated with business processes, it is important to be aware that IT also has its own priorities and procedures that are important and need to be taken into account. The top priority of an IT department is to protect the data by keeping it confidential and accurate. IT has developed its own set of policies and procedures to ensure data integrity, availability and confidentially and you will need to learn to work with this when interacting with IT systems, just as IT professionals need to learn to adapt to OT needs when working in your domain. 

Standard IT practices do not work for manufacturing systems – Little to no downtime is key in any industrial setting. Therefore, IT may need to modify some practices for manufacturing systems. For example, some procedures may not be feasible in a factory, such as ‘calling the help desk’ to fix a system issue. Recovery needs to happen quickly to avoid impacting productivity. So, the recovery process must be simple and fast with steps that plant personnel can complete on their own; implementing automatic software patch updates; rebooting, particularly as an early approach to fixing a problem; giving all data equal priority versus prioritising some types of data (for example robot movement instructions) over others (for example report generation).

Industrial networking systems have unique requirements that may be unfamiliar to IT  – When preparing to work with IT, it is necessary to remember that they may not have experience working with high-voltage, high-current equipment; industrial ratings and policies; keeping people and processes safe; and the important differences between putting control versus information on a network.

Further, IT will not be familiar with working in the harsh environments often found in industrial settings’ which can impact the type of equipment needed to ensure the integrity of data transmission that is vital to IoT. Without understanding this, the IT department might install commercial-grade wire and cable and commercial grade routers, switches and wireless networking devices that will not perform well in an unforgiving industrial setting.

Overcoming the obstacles
To overcome these challenges an environment of collaboration needs to be fostered. Consider this advice to start bridging the gap between OT and IT.

• Offer an olive branch: Find out which IT representatives would be the most likely to handle IoT projects and set up a time to meet with them. Look for projects on which both functions can begin to collaborate.

• Be sure you get in on the ground floor: Executives looking to capitalise on the IoT may think, because it involves IP technology, it should be led by the IT department. Speak to your leadership team and keep in touch with your friends in IT to let them know how including OT at the front end of IoT projects will help the process run more smoothly. 

• Educate: Proactively educate IT about what is required for the manufacturing side of the business to make an IoT initiative a success. For example, make sure IT understands that, even when sitting in a control room, equipment can be exposed to extreme aspects of an industrial environment that can degrade materials, so you need products that are resistant to water, oil, torsion, vibration and shock. Give details about the types of industrial switches, routers and physical components the project requires to withstand the harsh manufacturing environment. 

• Walk through standard processes: Work together to develop standard processes for undertakings that will need to be modified to accommodate the needs of both OT and IT. For example, outline guidelines for when and how to administer software updates, how to recover from a network outage, and what steps to take before adding a new device to an existing network system.

• Listen: Collaboration is a two-way street. Both OT and IT can learn from each other and the different types of perspectives and expertise each brings to the table. Begin to create this type of environment by listening to IT, asking for their input and being empathetic to their needs. 

The goal of IoT is to transform data into insights for creating business efficiencies. IP is the foundation for IoT and, once you start putting in Ethernet-based systems, IT is going to be involved with network design and access. Instead of working in silos, it is necessary to join forces with IT to create a collaborative approach that will result in a stronger industrial network to ensure your organisation can benefit from all that IoT has to offer.

Jeff Lund is senior director of product line management for Industrial IT at Belden.

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