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The real convergence of IT and OT: How much longer do we have to wait?

In the past, information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) were seen as two distinct domains of a business. The former focused on all the technologies that were necessary to manage the processing of information, whereas the latter supported the devices, sensors and software that were necessary for physical value creation and manufacturing processes.

One of the factors that is reshaping the industrial internet of things market is the convergence of information technology and operational technology.

But, like so many other aspects of IoT, the convergence of IT and OT is not new. Many companies including Atos, Cisco, GE, PTC, Bosch, Siemens, Schneider, Rockwell Automation and Advantech B&B SmartWorx have been evangelizing the merging OT and IT in IoT.

We have seen how the convergence of networks — both industrial (OT) and enterprise (IT) — are enabling applications such as video surveillance, smart meters, asset/package tracking, fleet management, digital health monitors and a host of other next-generation connected services.

With billions of devices already connected through IoT and billions more to still bring online, that convergence is unavoidable. As we look at what it means when the world of operational technology and information technology converge, we need to assess it from two angles.

The IT angle of the industrial internet

IT systems and professionals have the responsibility of setting up information technology infrastructures supporting industry businesses. The IT in the industrial internet enables interactions with the physical world of products, be it on the shop floor or in the field, and the challenges associated with managing this new world.

The OT angle of the industrial internet

The OT angle or the business angle is where business heads imagine new products for the industrial internet that are IoT-enabled at birth.

The business side is now designing a new era of products that assume interactions with corporate IT systems whether they are within managed corporate IT networks or not.

IT and OT convergence will drive IIoT adoption

As interest in IIoT gains greater traction across industries, engineers are realizing that it’s very possible –and not all that complicated — to monitor production parameters and detect deviation from required quality standards, predict future events and trends, continuously optimize product quality and reduce overall production time. This ability to control every step in the product lifecycle will enable new business opportunities and significantly change the concept of manufacturing through instant access to real-time process information and feedback.

To achieve this, however, companies’ IT and OT departments will need to change and work together. To adapt, OT will need to improve skills in the areas of security, teamwork and communication.

Business Drivers for IT/OT convergence

Main business drivers for the IT/OT convergence are:

  • Increasing operational efficiency utilizing machine data is the typical starting point for most industrial internet initiatives
  • Advancing consumer insight with predictive algorithms for better customer service offerings and forecasting demand

Hurdles of IT/OT convergence

There are certain challenges to IT/OT convergence. First and foremost, these technologies dabble in a very diverse set of equipment that have a myriad of protocols. Over time, they generate humungous amounts of data that need to be stored, in some cases, forever. Building products that cater to these diverse interfacing requirements and unstructured data storage and processing needs is non-trivial. All of this unstructured data needs to be made available for processing in real time as well as scheduled processing.

Typical corporate IT teams need support with skills and infrastructure for building these data infrastructures. Particular attention needs to be paid to the security and compliance risks for this new infrastructure. Unlike in the past, you now need to know whether the industrial equipment out there on the field has been authenticated, is securely transmitting data and whether there is threat vulnerability from the asset. Again, all these need to be assessed in real time and on a continual basis. As you look at the physical world, there are situations where your products need to cater to the diversity of networks that maybe involved.

The need of IoT platforms in IT/OT convergence

When I wrote “It is an IoT platform, stupid,” I emphasized the importance of selecting the right IoT platform because it will affect your IoT strategy. In the industrial internet, the selection process it is, if anything, more important.

Sensors, machines, devices, gateways, programmable logic controllers and IT systems will need to provide and process the information your business needs when its need them. Industrial networks and IT networks need to interoperate; your technologies also need to function in an environment where some of this data is available partially.

With the increasing number of connected devices and data, IT/OT convergence is of paramount importance to developing an industrial IoT platform that will help drive insights and efficiency into your hyper-connected enterprise.

Should IT and OT merge to accelerate the pace of change in IIoT?

There’s no doubt that IoT technology will accelerate the integration of OT and IT systems, but the fact is that as of today, and according to several global cellular providers, the growth curve in data plans for IoT M2M devices hasn’t turned out to be as explosive as their companies had expected it to be.

Some engineers have expressed the fear that all of their existing infrastructure would soon become hopelessly obsolete, while other engineers have assured that it would be a long time before even wired Ethernet was well-established enough to be trusted in the industrial internet, and that the advent of industrial IoT must surely be a long way down the road.

There appears to be a rather wide expectation gap between the engineers who think that IoT technology is ready to apply in the industrial internet and those who believe that IoT tech isn’t ready for primetime yet.

Until now, industrial networking professionals have been quite conservative. They argue that industrial networks can’t be allowed to fail, and that many industrial companies are committed to single-vendor, proprietary technologies that make change prohibitively expensive.

But while the OT world was still busy getting different kinds of machines to communicate at all, the IT world was making incredible progress. Ethernet networking standards were developed and adopted. Cost points fell to amazingly low levels. New Ethernet technologies continued to appear, and we’ve now reached the point where the so-called internet of things is becoming a reality.

OT can’t ignore IT anymore.

Key takeaways

In the industrial internet, we will see more OT and IT converge. This convergence will drive new industry technologies. We’ll see exciting new industry applications emerge, but we’ll also watch plenty of existing tech keep chugging before shutting down. The industry has been evolving for decades, and it will continue to do so. IIoT technology isn’t a break with the past, it’s merely a pathway to the future.

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