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IT versus OT – what is it all about?

Industry 4.0 is characterized by an increasing connectivity of plants and the comprising analysis and evaluation of the collected data. This development causes two separate worlds to grow together– the Information Technology (IT) and the Operational Technology (OT). We are going to explain what IT and OT are about and how they can benefit from each other.

The IT department is predominantly concerned with technologies and services that process information and data. Hence with hardware, software, wiring, network and communication technology, which are mainly used in the organizational and administrative divisions of the company. The IT colleagues manage the computers including software, printers, telephone system, data center, as well as the cooperation with external cloud hosting providers.

The term OT is less known and stands for Operational Technology. Gartner defines OT as “hardware or software, that detects or causes a change through direct monitoring and or/ controlling of physical devices, processes and events in the company.” In the industrial context, this primarily concerns machines, plants and systems in the manufacturing plant – including software. Thus, the OT colleagues manage the machines in the production halls and the cooperation with different manufacturers of the plants.

Traditionally Different Areas of Responsibility

Until now, IT and OT departments have different areas of responsibility. The biggest difference between them might be the fact that IT, unlike OT, deals with embedded systems. Those systems or computers that are used in a plant for surveillance, control and regulation or to process signals.

Due to Industry 4.0 and digital transformation these two different areas of responsibility are changing progressively. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is characterized by smart plants, whose sensors collect data in real time. Entire plants and factories therefore become more and more intelligent. However, only collecting data is not of much use if the data cannot be evaluated intelligently afterwards.

For this purpose, the plants have to be connected with each other and with the internet. The data of the OT teams provides valuable information to the IT team which helps the whole company to make use of competitive advantages the best possible way. The machine-generated data can e.g. help to optimize the manufacturing process or to plan maintenance work predictively.

Convergence of Two Divisions

The increasing connectivity of the plants draws the areas of responsibility of IT and OT nearer. In this process both teams should not worry about restrictions in their particular area of responsibility. Instead they can benefit from each other’s experiences: Technologically OT teams mostly operate in a closed system environment. Their main job is the physical security. IT teams on the other hand are familiar with systems which are interconnected via the internet. They are well versed with the challenges of digital security.

Consequently, security comes first in both cases. But the connectivity of machines via the internet contains exposures that bear new risks for both sides.

Learning From Each Other

In times of Industry 4.0 and IIoT, IT and OT have to learn from each other. Ultimately, they have to find a coherent security approach to protect industrial companies in a sustainable and effective way in the future. It is necessary for both sides to consider aspects that have not been in the focus of the respective department before.

IT can learn from OT

In the field of physical security, there are dangers that the IT team did not have to think about before. Hence, the failure of a machine can result in deficient products leaving the manufacturing process and cause damages to the consumer.

In addition, IT colleagues should consider that a security incident in the industrial sector can have more serious consequences than in a corporate context.  If e.g. the control system of a furnace is being attacked, it can be shut down, which would result in a time-consuming and expansive restoration.

IT-colleagues are familiar with patch management and regular software updates. What they do not suspect is that operating systems in closed plant systems are oftentimes quite outdated. And the software cannot be simply updated without consequences. Or there is a very particular and individual solution that is not compatible with standardized IT security systems.

OT can learn from IT

IIoT forces OT teams to deal with opening up their systems and with the dangers of a possible loss of control. Connected machines include an increased risk of being attacked from the outside. Entire manufacturing plants can be hacked, the complete production brought to a standstill. Or certain sub processes are manipulated and cause defective products. Also an attack on single plants can lead to e.g. the overheating of a machine that can’t be turned off. And the list goes on.

Therefore, an awareness has to be raised among the OT colleagues for an absolute confidential handling of data and passwords in the increasingly open systems. They have to know that regular software-patches become more and more important. And they have to learn to work with IT solutions they have not used before.

Closer Collaboration

Security concerns are the main reason why OT colleagues object to the „opening” of the systems and the usage of the IIoT. However, it is a fact that the German industry cannot get around this development. In future, both departments have to learn to work much closer together. Especially security can be a chance for them to connect. As only together it will be possible, to ensure the highest level of IT/OT security for industrial companies.

Large enterprises understand the importance of IIoT and they are already realizing concrete projects. Small and mid-sized companies are still skeptical. But they have to be careful not to miss the boat. A collaboration with external partners can help them to lose their concerns and to take their first steps into the IIoT. SMS digital has specialized in taking mid-sized industrial companies successfully and securely into the IIoT.

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