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A guide to IT/OT convergence

Author: Adam Kimmel

The Internet of Things is fueling innovation for Industry 4.0 with increased device connectivity and intelligent data processing. But before that can happen, networks and systems need to be integrated. IT/OT convergence is the unification of the information technology (IT) network used to process data and operational technology (OT) systems, or physical processes and equipment used to house those processes.

IT/OT convergence has four principal benefits:

  1. Increased scalability.
  2. Cost-savings through fewer connections and parts, improving the performance of both while reducing inefficiencies in their interactions.
  3. Enhanced security through an increased emphasis on network and system integrity.
  4. Improved collaboration between IT and OT personnel.

It's critical to explore similarities and differences in IT and OT to determine the best convergence strategy that will propel Industry 4.0 without sacrificing efficiency and security.

IT/OT network convergence

Advanced infrastructure is crucial to the expansion of Industry 4.0—the efficient automation of manufacturing via smart processing of vast amounts of data—because the modern IT network benefits from the lower latency of newer technologies such as 5G. The IT network experiences higher bandwidth demand from the higher amount of data from connected devices. As a result, advanced infrastructure must manage a higher number of communication paths for diagnostic data, which enables the system to predict maintenance timing. Product Data Management (PDM) can offload some of this burden by handling product and process information in a single system. This approach reduces the number of data transfers between the product/process and the network.

Network convergence also means the expansion of wired and wireless gateways to interconnect the various network systems, potentially increasing their exposure to external threats. To address this, sophisticated cyber security threat detection capabilities need to be considered.

OT system convergence

Components of OT include industrial control systems, which include supervisory control and data acquisition as well as distributed control systems. Like advanced infrastructure, OT requires advanced systems to drive Industry 4.0. System designers are increasing the amount of OT components that are wirelessly connected to the internet. Advanced 5G wireless technology improves both the agility and quality of operational systems by decreasing the lag time between signal and response and increasing connectivity between devices. The influx of data from connected OT components allows engineers to optimize the system's design, processes and operations.

OT security is a challenge when converging with IT as well. IT networks have prioritized and addressed security in the past. While Industry 4.0 solutions are increasingly complex, security in connected devices in OT systems is a new challenge. Inferior security parameters could render them susceptible to web-based malware attacks, or potentially damage the products being manufactured. Methods to increase security in OT include prescribing when to roll out the next security update, designing new hardware with embedded security features and implementing standards and robust security policies. A principal challenge with OT security is ensuring the engineers and technicians are able to address critical issues if a security measure is initiated. An example of this risk is a password-lockout when an operator is trying to manually control the system.

IT/OT convergence

With the differences and features outlined, the next step is to deploy a strategy to converge IT and OT. Each team will need to define the critical areas to address before integration can happen. Mapping out a solid wireless connectivity plan, defining a security strategy, implementing and testing firewalls and access controls, are critical to reducing costs, increasing security and raising operational efficiency.

Learn more about IT/OT alignment on the factory floor and what you can do to create a seamless transition.