The convergence of OT and IT

Having worked in both operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT) environments for years, I’ve observed the lines between these worlds becoming increasingly blurred. It’s a trend I’ve been following for some time, and recent studies have brought it into sharper focus. Some early indicators of what we are seeing now were apparent in our research report from 2020 on the adoption of SAP S/4HANA and a Data Maturity Study from 2021, namely a growing need for real-time visibility across both IT and OT.

The timing of this discussion is pertinent as organisations are increasingly seeking ways to more effectively extract value from their OT data. I recently spoke with Mark Lloyd, General Manager Axians UK, who provided some keen insights on this area. Axians UK delivers comprehensive IT services and solutions across cloud, data centre, cyber security, enterprise networks, managed IT services and telecommunications infrastructures. The company also has extensive experience assisting clients to address IT-OT challenges. As Lloyd put it, “In my experience, many organisations underestimate the complexity of IT-OT integration”

The Rise of Real-Time Data Streaming

One of the key changes is in how data is now being transferred between OT and IT systems. Open APIs are increasingly used for point-to-point integration, and data streaming technologies like Kafka are becoming more prevalent for near real-time data exchange using the publish-and-subscribe model. This represents an improvement on older methods such as secure FTP, which can find it challenging to keep pace with the rapid updates many modern applications require. One of Lloyd’s consultants said, “’We’re seeing a shift from batch processing to real-time data streams. For one manufacturing client, this meant moving from daily production reports to live monitoring of their production lines, enabling immediate adjustments and significantly reducing downtime.”

However, it’s not just about faster data transfer. It’s about the potential use of such data once it’s flowing, for example predictive maintenance. By analysing data from industrial equipment in real-time, it can become possible to identify potential issues before they become problems requiring unplanned plant shutdowns. And modern approaches can not only improve operational efficiency but can also potentially enhance security by quickly identifying anomalies that could indicate vulnerabilities.

On the topic of security, we have to recognise that the connection of OT and IT systems does have the possibility to create new vulnerabilities. This interconnection means security risks could propagate between the two domains, potentially expanding the overall attack surface. It’s comparable to creating a new access point between two previously separate areas – careful consideration must be given to what might pass through and how to monitor and mitigate potential threats.

This situation presents interesting organisational challenges. Traditionally, OT and IT teams have operated independently, each with distinct priorities and management chains. As these systems converge, it may necessitate a rethinking of management approaches.This prompted an interesting conversation between my colleague Dale Vile and myself considering the role of the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO). One idea we brainstormed was could the CISO serve as a link between the Chief Operating Officer (COO) and the Chief Information Officer (CIO), providing a human bridge between the OT and IT chains of command? While there’s no one size fits all answer to such a question, for the huge diversity of verticals and organisations that will be impacted as IT and OT converge, it could be a question worth exploring.

The Impact on Supply Chains and Manufacturing

Another aspect of this convergence is its impact on supply chains. Just-in-time manufacturing relies heavily on real-time data flow. Some companies are already planning production lines that have detailed visibility of when the stock it uses will arrive. This is the level of visibility that the industry is moving towards.

While manufacturing provides a clear example of IT-OT convergence, it’s important to note that this trend is affecting or likely to influence various other industries as well. In retail, for example, IT-OT integration can enable smarter inventory management and enhance customer in-store experience through the use of connected devices. The logistics sector is also benefiting from improved tracking and optimization of supply chains. In utilities, smart grids are transforming energy distribution and management. 

Even in areas like building management, some are seeing the integration of IT systems with operational infrastructure to create more efficient, responsive environments. Each of these industries faces unique challenges and opportunities from bridging the IT-OT gap, but the underlying principles of data integration, real-time analytics, and enhanced decision-making remain consistent across industries.

As the volume of data being generated by OT increases, effective and efficient data management grows in importance. To help address this, “edge computing” will probably have a role to play. Edge in this context means rather than transmitting every piece of data back to a central system for analysis, much of it can be processed at the point of generation close to the OT infrastructure. In many scenarios this could act as an intelligent filter, only sending back the most relevant information. In the future, as OT-IT integration matures, the potential exists for action to also take place at the edge.

AI and machine learning look likely to become increasingly important in this context. They have the potential to help to make sense of the OT data, identify patterns and anomalies that might be missed by human observers, close to real time. Such technology could enhance the capabilities of human staff. For example, an experienced engineer might notice a system isn’t functioning correctly and a well trained AI system could help pinpoint the specific issue and suggest an effective solution.

Going forwards there is little doubt that the integration between IT and OT will deepen. While refresh cycles for many OT systems tend to be longer than those for IT, as older systems are replaced, we are likely to see more ‘intelligent’ equipment that can easily integrate into this connected ecosystem.

Softer challenges

While the potential benefits of IT-OT convergence are significant, a thoughtful approach to this transition is essential especially as we are not talking only about technology – it also involves people and processes. As OT professionals will need to understand cybersecurity principles and IT specialists will need to recognise the requirements of industrial systems. Lloyd concluded by saying, “It’s not just about connecting systems; it’s about bridging cultures and processes that have traditionally operated in silos”.

It is also important that we recognise some commercial challenges may also have to be addressed. As has been seen in many other technology transformations, the way solutions are sold and licensed can significantly influence adoption, positively or negatively. Flexibility in commercial models can be as important as flexibility in the technology itself.

Final thoughts

It is clear that for many organisations the convergence of IT and OT will represent more than a technological development – it could offer a significant transformation of how we run OT and IT systems. It will almost certainly create new opportunities, but will definitely also present new challenges to operations and security.

Navigating the evolving IT-OT landscape does require a balanced approach. While it’s valuable to stay informed about new developments, it’s equally important to critically assess how these changes apply to your specific context. If you’re from an IT background, consider spending time with your OT colleagues to understand their priorities and constraints. Similarly, if you’re in OT, engaging with IT may provide insights into managing data at scale and the art of the IT possible. As we have seen, some very effective solutions have come from cross-functional collaboration. However, it’s also crucial to acknowledge that not every new trend will be relevant or beneficial for your organisation. As ever, the need is to evaluate potential changes keeping in mind your organisation’s specific needs and constraints.

Tony is an IT operations guru. As an ex-IT manager with an insatiable thirst for knowledge, his extensive vendor briefing agenda makes him one of the most well informed analysts in the industry, particularly on the diversity of solutions and approaches available to tackle key operational requirements. If you are a vendor talking about a new offering, be very careful about describing it to Tony as ‘unique’, because if it isn’t, he’ll probably know.