IT/OT Convergence: Bringing Two Worlds Together

IT/OT Convergence

For decades, information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) systems have co-existed in process industry enterprises, often with very little crossover or cooperation between them. Traditionally, OT has kept the plant running with proprietary, mission critical systems designed to meet key requirements for availability and uptime. Meanwhile, IT managed business applications from the front office and is traditionally responsible for computers and networks on an enterprise-wide basis.

With the need to reduce cost and increase scalability, the IT and consumer worlds have been steadily trending towards open architecture since the 1980s, with expanding prevalence of open operating systems, programming tools, and hardware architectures. While OT adopted open technologies on a limited basis, for the most part it has continued to rely on manufacturer-proprietary controllers, networks, and application software.

The rise of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and related technologies have greatly impacted IT and OT. Networked, digital devices that can collect, transfer and analyze industrial data introduce enormous potential benefits. Digital Transformation and Smart Manufacturing have accelerated the all-important convergence of these domains in the process industry. More than ever, the confluence of technology market conditions are catalyzing “IT/OT convergence” in process industries.

IT, OT and Convergence

For over 50 years, IT and OT have functioned, by design, in distinct spheres. Controlling or supervising mission-critical processes and operations, OT intentionally existed as an island of technology, disconnected from the enterprise-wide IT network. It communicated within a restricted network using niche proprietary protocols. It was also often air gapped, and manufacturers used such OT products as PLCs as additional layers of security.

In manufacturing, the focus of IT has largely been on data preservation and protection. OT has focused much more on safe, reliable, efficient, and secure control of operations.

OT professionals have always required in-depth knowledge of the equipment, manufacturing processes, applications and technologies for process-specific operations. In contrast, IT typically developed a broader, enterprise-wide view that includes data, computing and networks.

However, the boundaries between these two worlds are steadily evaporating. Smart sensors, new protocols and gateways, and cloud computing are enabling OT to access and share data across the broader enterprise-wide network.

Best of both worlds

IT/OT Convergence

Convergence of IT and OT matters because it is—gradually but surely—changing the nature of manufacturing and creating opportunities for innovative improvements to manufacturing processes for those willing to act.

In the past, OT systems have successfully incorporated Windows and Linux-based operating systems at the server level. Doing so cut costs substantially and provided greatly improved connectivity for operator stations and other applications.

Today, the OT world is rapidly adopting new IT practices such as virtualization, cloud, AI, agile DevOps and UX/UI design.

Doreen Martin Quote

Cloud computing is permeating the OT world not only for computing and data storage resources but also for OT applications such as predictive maintenance of process equipment, simulation, energy management, and supply chain optimization. In the same way that cloud impacted front office applications, it is now opening up discussions about plant infrastructure strategy including server co-location, the appropriate balance of on-premise systems and traditional in-house IT resources.

The promise of unlocking massive productivity gains have made IT/ OT convergence a business imperative. Manufacturing enterprises are seeking to leverage IT/OT convergence to achieve gains in productivity and reduction in cost, while managing the inherent risks of convergence.

Key challenges of IT/OT Convergence

Successful smart manufacturing initiatives are built on a deep understanding of how operational processes and technology deliver value to users and customers. Combining new IT approaches with domain knowledge and existing applications isn’t easy. It requires the judicious application of new technologies, integrating or migrating automation components, optimizing operations and value chain-related processes. The following challenges are likely to be encountered:

Organizational Silos

Given the breadth of OT in manufacturing, the machines, devices, and control mechanisms of modern factories often operate in relative isolation and communicate using a variety of niche protocols. To extract and transform data to new systems, a common taxonomy and information architecture is needed. This can only be established through communication among owners of each system, so any communication difficulties introduce blind spots and technical risks.

Data incompatibilities, organizational silos, and information blind spots are endemic to any IT/OT convergence approach. They need to be breached formally and informally to facilitate the flow of information and know-how that are essential for true convergence.

Cyber Security

OT systems were not originally designed to operate on business networks. Today, the presence of IP-connected devices, cloud platforms and open and agile provisioning in OT networks introduce new vulnerabilities, threat vectors, and variety of cyber threats targeting OT systems. Similar to IT business applications, a new multi-pronged approach to continuously managing and mitigating OT security risks is necessary.

Legacy Systems

Since plants and OT are often engineered to operate for decades, they are often full of legacy systems, which can be customized or unsupported. To enjoy the benefits of IT/OT convergence and more extensive accessibility of real-time information, an integration strategy is needed to access data from these systems without disturbing operations. While some vendors offer a solutions to upgrade or manage obsolescence, a legacy system strategy can often employ wrappers or containerization. When it comes to keeping pace with digitalization, legacy systems and data quality can be major challenges.

IT and OT Skillsets

IT/OT convergence is changing the way manufacturers work and the skills that workers need. Company management and IT departments want process and manufacturing engineers to learn IT skills, while OT departments face waves of retiring veterans with intimate knowledge of the plant environment. True convergence means that OT professionals acquire IT fluency and digital literacy, while IT professionals partner with OT professionals to reflect domain knowledge and requirements within IT. Today, a new breed of multi-disciplinary engineer is emerging, who possess skills spanning IT and OT disciplines.

The most successful IT/OT convergence strategies have deployed cross functional teams of engineers and managers whose skills span IT and OT in addition to subject matter experts who specialize in various IT and OT disciplines.

Who is leading the IT/OT convergence?

DX Program Organization

One question all organizations eventually face is over who should lead the IT/OT convergence. One approach has been to bring in an external IT generalist or IT leader to transform the OT function. While a CIO or IT oriented CDO could broadly oversee all aspects of digital technology in the company, that individual very likely lacks the necessary familiarity with OT work processes and non-digital OT technologies such as process chemistry, process units, equipment and instrumentation. This approach can overlook the importance of the vast experience, know-how and tacit knowledge OT professionals have acquired over many years.

Another approach is to invest in raising the digital fluency and capabilities of OT professionals, or promote the most digitally fluent OT leader into a broader role. The advantage is that it puts domain experts in a better position to leverage their own skills and experience to facilitate the convergence. Such an approach may be more time consuming with required attention to upskilling, but perhaps more practical in execution.

Structuring IT and OT functions

Over the years, several models of structuring IT and OT functions have emerged:

  • The IT/OT Interface: In this early model, one person, generally an IT specialist, serves as an interface between IT and OT personnel.
  • Combined department: A combined “technology” or “automation” function consolidates IT and OT functions. Instead of an IT leader such as a Chief Information Officer (CIO), a Chief Digital Officer (CDO) or Chief Technology Officer (CTO) would lead this function. In the case of the convergence program, a “Chief Transformation Officer” would lead that effort.
  • Cross-functional IT/OT team: A third option establishes a cross functional IT/OT team. The model is a hybrid of the prior two. In such a team, the CDO or CTO must impose continuous alignment to keep the cross-functional teams on the same track.
  • Manufacturing IT team: In this model, the IT team is integrated within the OT team, directly reporting to the manufacturing function with a dotted line linking them to corporate IT. In this model, all ERP contributors are situated in the same team. Similarly, all of the devices and processes around Level 2 and Level 3 in the ISA95 Purdue model architecture are effectively self-contained.
  • Functional IT/OT teams: Finally, some organizations choose to separate IT/OT functions based on functions such as ERP and capital projects or based on operating environments such as refining and manufacturing.

In order to navigate the gulf between the IT and OT organizations, the IT/OT convergence program team must first be fully aware of the perceptions, attitudes and knowledge that abound in each of them. In practically all cases, managers in merged IT/OT positions are inevitably amazed how each discipline has had a complete misunderstanding of the other.

According to experienced professionals, poor IT/OT convergence projects are run primarily one way or the other: by IT with little participation on the part of OT—or vice versa. That simply enables existing processes to continue with very little improvement.

The best fit for any enterprise depends on various parameters, such as the size of the organization, the location, and its digital maturity. A successful IT/OT convergence emphasizes business objectives over technology. Ultimately, the company must move away from the highly layered technical architecture and strategically align with C-suite objectives.

Game-changer for business

DX Maturity Model

As IT/OT convergence makes its way across all corporate functions, companies envision a digital and connected enterprise in which digitalization and automation empower every human at every level in the organization with situational awareness to view the right information at the right time and support decision making.

Still, for many manufacturers, IT/OT convergence is an evolutionary process, and whoever is leading it, needs to guide the organization, process and systems between OT and IT. Therefore, any organization should consider and evaluate its maturity and develop digitalization roadmaps that guide enterprises in determining the ideal approach for creating value and drive the change desired.

When done well, IT/ OT convergence can provide access to real-time enterprise-wide data. It enables valuable insights that add to the holistic view of the functioning of the enterprise. Increasingly, leaders see many opportunities to innovate and get ahead.

New IT enablers can make industrial business processes more responsive and agile while raising the benchmarks of quality, efficiency and control. It also empowers the organization to make improvements in processes, reduce costs, reduce down-time, and shorten product development timelines.

Digital transformation and smart manufacturing

IIn the process industry, IT/OT convergence offers the novel use of digital technology to accelerate business strategy as it connected to the digital transformation of an enterprise. A large portion of this digital transformation is in manufacturing. Digital transformation applied to production and manufacturing is what Yokogawa calls “Smart Manufacturing” and it offers out-of-the-box integrated solutions for plant automation, asset management, and value chain optimization.

It is a game-changer for business and can potentially enable new levels of autonomy as well as subscription-based and outcome-oriented business models.

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