Information technology and operational technology have a long and complicated history. Each system was developed with a different goal in mind. IT systems can collect, store and send data. In contrast, OT systems produce huge amounts of data that IT can capture and leverage. However, there is one key problem; neither function was designed to work with the other.
A lack of communication between these two critical functions prevents each from having the data they need at the precise moment of relevance. In fact, only 38 percent of utility companies indicate they have the ability to share data across their organization. Not being able to collect, share and pollinate data freely within an organization can result in poor decision-making abilities. The right data, at the right moment, shared easily and freely, changes everything, and new technologies are making this possible.
Billions of devices are already connected to the Internet of Things with more new devices gaining connectivity daily. IoT makes it possible to collect, highlight and understand the essential data required by those who operate OT systems, driving efficiencies and improvements in their systems. IoT is the connective tissue that glues together critical functions and allows them to communicate with greater ease.
The key benefits of IT and OT convergence
The lines between IT and OT are blurring. The industrial Internet is largely responsible for this, with the arrival of sensors and software that provide smarter and more robust analytics. The data generated from these analytics are used to optimize and fine-tune the manufacturing process with greater accuracy. However once you start talking about generating data for the enterprise using these types of processes, it starts to sound more like IT. But not in tomorrow’s world. The future will include IT and OT functions that overlap as teams work together and propagate data and insights with greater freedom.
In fact, Gartner predicts that by 2020, 50 percent of OT service providers will create key partnerships with IT-centric providers for IoT offerings. Leveraging IoT for IT and OT convergence has many benefits that span a variety of industries. For example, local public utility companies can feed disaster or emergency data into corporate IT systems. IT and OT can then use this data to make critical decisions and anticipate any potential impacts. Data can be used to optimize business processes, minimize the risk of sudden machine failure, lower business risks and even shorten project timelines. Here are six of the major benefits of IoT supporting the convergence of IT and OT.
Business decisions that are greatly optimized
In the past, the best data available was historical data. A machine part may have historically required replacement every seven months, so to get ahead of the curve, a company would replace the part every six months. Historical data is a good estimate, but it’s not always accurate and the ability to make decisions can be adversely affected. For example, remote sensors can be attached to a battery-powered node on a wireless mesh network, making the sensor data available to analytics applications. Any urgent data of concern can be shared in real time with appropriate OT staff who can then act on it immediately.
Lower operating costs
Operating costs erode a company’s profits, so companies naturally want to reduce these expenses. The convergence of IT and OT makes this possible by improving business process intelligence through smarter analytics. Operators can intelligently manage a variety of asset variables, such as integrating reliable weather information, which is IT. Grid power demands can also be monitored, which is OT. As a result, business processes and analytics are converged.
Shorter development time and common platforms
Working in silos got the job done, but IT and OT missed out on critical opportunities to share expertise and efficiencies with each other. Communication, hardware, and software were specific to each domain. This made the task of integrating IT and OT systems difficult and complex, but IoT is overcoming this hurdle. IoT provides communication standards and a common environment for IT and OT groups. Each area can now share, communicate and network across systems.
Security across all networks
In the past, OT and IT groups used siloed data networks for security, but they lacked interconnectivity. Having this interconnectivity through flexible data infrastructure allows them to leverage a single security network and minimize vulnerabilities from a combined network. As a result, organizations can benefit from greater network security while converging and sharing resources.
Organized to complement one another
A flexible data infrastructure also helps bring together areas that may not normally share data freely. For example, a network managing an oil well may be considered very different from the front office of an oil company. Yet they are interconnected. IT and OT have different roles in helping manage these distinctively different areas. IoT assists with collecting and sharing the data so each unit has what is needed at the exact moment it is required.
Bridging the critical divide
IoT helps IT and OT work together to bridge critical gaps between people and processes. Having the right technology in place helps people come together, and allows the technology to act as the conduit rather than the main focus. The convergence of OT and IT requires each to gain a greater understanding of the other.
Having remote access to plants and equipment, and the ability to share that data easily and in real time, is critical for the future. IoT offers not only the ability to provide that connectivity for the sharing of data but also the ability to scale storage for all the data that is being generated. As a result, both OT and IT have a much greater level of processing power and insights to make the right decision at the right moment.
Key Takeaway: The gravitation for IT and OT to converge has been on the brink of taking place for years. The rapid progression of IoT and what it offers to both IT and OT is changing everything. More data is being collected, but it is also being reviewed, analyzed and shared to empower those who need it most. The more data and insights being shared across IT and OT, the greater those insights and the better the decisions. Processes can be fine-tuned to ensure that maximized efficiency is being met through ongoing monitoring and review.
Finding common ground
The convergence of IT and OT is not always embraced. Staff have many concerns and may want to retain control of their respective systems and machines.
Grant Notman, head of Sales and Marketing at Wood & Douglas said:
“The IoT is removing mundane repetitive tasks or creating things that just weren’t possible before, enabling more people to do more rewarding tasks and leaving the machines to do the repetitive jobs.”
Even when it makes sense, it’s not always easy to get everybody on board to implement the changes. However, a few key actions can make the process of transition smoother.
Evaluate the connectivity of devices
First off, tightly define which systems and devices should communicate with one another. Start small so that staff can easily observe the benefits. Measure the results and share them regularly with the respective teams. Once staff begin to see the real benefits, and the technologies and processes don’t seem so new, adoption should receive a more positive response.
Safeguard the accuracy of data
Smart analytics is a major driver in IoT and supports the convergence of IT and OT. At the core of this technology is data. Analytics enable deeper insights, allowing each group to make higher-quality decisions. But if the data isn’t highly accurate, the insights gleaned will be flawed. Ensure that data in both business areas is accurately processed to ensure the insights are valuable and support staff adoption.
Key takeaway: Staff may feel uneasy about the convergence of IT and OT and the technology that is fueling that change. But a gradual adoption can help ease those concerns, as employees begin to recognize the benefits of greater communication and collaboration, and how each makes their job easier.
Growing and thriving in the future
The barriers facing IT and OT teams lie with their ability to seamlessly share key data between each area and leverage it for greater efficiency. With the continued convergence of the two areas in the future, the ability to communicate freely and with greater speed in real time will become increasingly important. IoT holds the key to success, and the rewards for successful convergence are great.
Development cycles will be shortened, productivity levels will rise and security will become more robust. Smarter business analytics will be fueled by the pollinating of data shared easily between IT and OT. The technology and potential are there, but people must be willing to first change the way they think. The benefits of bringing together IT and OT through IoT are simply too great to ignore. Those who embrace and adopt the technology tools that support this convergence will ensure that communication gaps are closed and the staff are more empowered than ever to make better decisions.