IT/OT convergence: resistance is useless

29 June 2018

Suzanne Gill finds out more about the trend towards IT and OT convergence - and explores the barriers it poses and the benefits it will bring.

In order to remain competitive and to deliver solutions comprising smart connected assets, enterprise integrated automation, secured cloud based data and advanced analytics the (IT) and operational technology (OT) departments of an enterprise need to work together. “Close cooperation allows real-time plant data to be turned into actionable information using software, analytics and plant process models, which in turn enables operational improvements and increased reliability,” said Bart Winters, product manager at Honeywell Connected Plant.

However, while it is now accepted that the industrial environment can benefit from the increased insights provided as a result of adoption of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technologies, it would appear that it is the reluctance of the IT and OT departments to work together that has created a barrier to greater uptake of these new technologies.

The issues with IT/OT convergence are that, while IT is focused on storing and analysing data, OT focuses on simply making things work. OT relies on legacy hardware and software systems that detect or causes a real-time change through direct monitoring and control whereas IT has never, historically, provided data to affect the real-time control of operational plant.

“With such established silos, the first challenge that needs to be overcome to ensure successful enterprise digitalisation is to get everyone singing from the same hymn sheet and to develop a language native to all,” said Martin Walder, VP Industry at Schneider Electric UK. “This will require new processes, responsibilities and owners of architectures to be established as maintenance and environmental demands of the technologies differ. It is only with such clarity that engineers will be able to extract the most relevant data and utilise it in a way that benefits and informs all.

“Together, IT and OT can guarantee the highest availability of critical systems; OT ensuring the processes are always running and optimised and IT supporting the availability of hardware systems, always-on connectivity, cyber security, applications and data/analytics.

“By merging IT and OT, engineers will gain access to the additional insights they need. It will practically take real-time process control information and make it available at the business level, so rapid decisions can be made. Integrating IT systems, such as ERP with OT systems like MES will help solve key business issues all plants face in terms of production efficiency, process reliability and safety. With heightened visibility and better insight of enterprise operations, new ways of collaboration between previously isolated groups can be established and full potential can be achieved,” said Walder.

Overcoming challenges
Marcel Kelder, director advanced solutions at Yokogawa Europe, agrees that effectively converging the digital world into the business and production environment is a challenge that needs to be overcome to reap the benefits of digitalisation. He said: “Converging, aligning and integrating IT and OT domains is not an easy task and will differ depending on whether you are working within a brownfield or greenfield environment.” Kelder believes that the biggest challenge for brownfields lies within the existing infrastructure and business processes; while for a greenfield environment it is often the absence of a business owner for OT and an undefined business process during plant construction that poses the biggest problem.

“Although most of us recognise the benefits of digital transformation and integration, a considerable number of companies do not yet have an IT/OT integration plan,” continued Kelder. “Often, instead of having one plan with one business owner, companies wait too long before planning, resulting in fragmented integration or no integration at all.” Kelder defines integration as the discipline of bringing information together and sharing it between repositories, applications, business processes, and organisations. The starting point, he says, is a comprehensive definition of the business processes for the IT and OT domain. Once these are defined, the integration of information, application and technology follows quickly. Integration will lead to a shared set of standards and platforms across IT and OT, reducing costs and risk caused by human error.

“Companies need to understand that the IT and OT domain can be considered as one eco system where everything is connected. Through integration and creating ‘a single truth’, companies are not just able to react to disruptions but can also anticipate them, creating ‘what if’ scenarios, and adjusting their organisation immediately as conditions change,” said Kelder.

A note of warning
With increased interoperability and complexity among converging IT and OT systems comes and increased risk of cyber attacks. “To overcome these fears it is vital to gain visibility to effectively monitor for threats, vulnerabilities, and malicious activity that could impact operations,” advises Seema Haji, director of product marketing for IOT at Splunk.

Driving effective IT/OT integration is seen by many as being critical to enable all personnel on a production site to seamlessly work together to achieve improved business performance. However, Nick Taylor, of Emerson automation Solutions believes that IT/OT convergence does not mean that the technologies and hardware will become the same, and nor will the teams that implement and support them. “What is required is integration that gives non-operational staff the ability to easily access data from the plant using their everyday IT infrastructure,” he said.

Taylor believes that, in some ways, OT and IT technologies have already converged. He said: “Windows and Ethernet abound, and gone are the days when the DCS runs on a proprietary network and computer, but the two domains remain fundamentally different. Integration of the two domains is not new: instrumentation and control systems have been making information available to other parts of the enterprise for many years. More recently the explosion of affordable sensing and monitoring possibilities and the IIoT, has resulted in greater demands for seamless flow of data between the two.”

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