What is operational technology and how is edge driving IT/OT convergence?

While IT is a common term that most have a good understanding of, operational technology (OT) can be more challenging to define. In this article we explore the difference between IT and OT, and consider the role that edge computing plays in their convergence.

While IT (information technology) is a common term that most people have a good understanding of, the term OT (operational technology) is one that some may not have come across before. As technology evolves and industries undergo digital transformation in the move towards Industry 4.0, distinguishing between IT and OT becomes increasingly challenging as the line between IT and OT becomes blurred.

So what is the difference between IT and OT, and what are the implications of their convergence?

In short, IT refers to systems that manage information and data, whereas OT refers to machines and the systems that manage them.

What is IT?

Information technology refers to anything that is related to computer technology. This includes the software (applications, operating systems etc.) and hardware (physical servers, network equipment etc.). IT differs from OT in that it is the use of compute resources for the generation and management of data throughout and between organisations.

What is OT?

Operational technology encompasses the devices and technology that control the physical world. These are both the physical machines themselves (robots, computerised machine tools, actuators), and the systems that control, monitor, and interface with them. In other words, it is the hardware and software that is required to monitor and control industrial processes across a range of applications and industries where efficiency and uptime are key drivers. Industries that leverage OT include manufacturing, oil and gas, power and utilities, and scientific research.
Examples of OT include:

  • PLCs (Programmable logic controllers) – Industrial computers for the control of manufacturing processes such as assembly lines or robotic devices
  • SCADA systems (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) – Systems of software and hardware elements that allow industrial organizations to control industrial processes and collect and manage data
  • DCS (Distributed Control Systems) – Systems of sensors and controllers that are distributed throughout a plant
  • Machinery (e.g. CNCs, computerised machine tools)
  • MES (manufacturing execution system) applications – MES systems connect production equipment across the factory floor, or multiple plants or sites
  • Operational technology field devices include valves, transmitters, switches and actuators
  • Scientific equipment like oscilloscopes

The exact scope of which technologies are considered to sit under the OT umbrella can vary somewhat depending on the definition. However, the automation pyramid can generally be a good indicator of which technologies are classified as OT:

Figure 1: The Automation Pyramid

operational technology

Source: STL Partners

The pyramid shows how various OT devices and control systems work together. At the bottom of the pyramid sit the physical devices on the shop floor (e.g. machinery or valves and switches), then as you move up the pyramid you work up towards the corporate level of manufacturing processes, which are considered to be IT.

IT and OT are converging

As is often the case, reality is messy and in this case IT / OT convergence is muddying the waters further. For example, manufacturers today may choose to integrate their enterprise systems (e.g. ERP) with operational technology like manufacturing execution systems (MES).

This IT/OT convergence is in part driven by competitive pressures. Organisations are under pressure to cut costs by driving performance improvements and increasing efficiencies, and many see the digitalisation of operations as the answer to solving these business challenges. As OT systems are digitalised/ virtualised, the physical world meets the digital world. With the exponential growth in data volumes brought about by IoT, convergence of systems will become necessary.

Edge computing plays a role in IT/OT convergence

The rise of edge computing also plays a key role in bringing the IT and OT worlds together. With edge computing, the performance of non-virtualised on-premise machinery can be achieved in the cloud. This is because applications that previously had to run on-premise, because the latency or reliability of running them in the cloud was not sufficient, can now run at the edge. Since many IT systems have already migrated to the cloud, the move of operational technology there too means that data sources from IT and OT can be brought together more easily, and there are business benefits to doing this.

Cybersecurity is an increasing challenge for OT environments

As operational technology evolves and the physical world moves online, cybersecurity becomes a growing concern. This is because the increased connections between devices/enterprise technologies and the internet open up new access points that are vulnerable to attack from external threats. This means that organisations need to adopt systems and risk management principles that are capable of protecting their technology systems, regardless of whether it is IT or OT.

Ultimately the convergence of IT and OT will require new ways of working as businesses adapt to a shift in their organisational structure, and take on new challenges with compliance, cybersecurity, and data and technology management. However, it is clear that those that are able to navigate the convergence of their IT and OT could better reap the rewards of digital transformation – greater flexibility, efficiency and productivity.

Author: Miran Gilmore is a Consultant at STL Partners, specialising in edge computing, private cellular and telco cloud

About Dalia Adib

Edge computing practice lead

Dalia is the Edge Computing Practice Lead at STL Partners and has led major consulting projects with Tier-1 operators in Europe and Asia Pacific on edge computing strategies, use cases and commercial models. She co-authored the research report “Edge Computing: Five Viable Business Models” and been an active speaker at events including Edge Europe and Data Cloud Congress. Outside of edge computing, she supports clients in areas such as 5G, blockchain, digital transformation and IoT.

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