OT-IT convergence: Unlocking potential and confronting risks in the digital age
By Roch Muraine, Worldwide Sales Director for Transportation, Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise
Recently a silent revolution, the convergence of operation technology (OT) and information technology (IT) has become a key driver of digital transformation across various industries, particularly the transportation as well as the energy and utilities market. As the sector becomes more connected and digitised, the OT-IT convergence increases in importance.
This merging of traditionally isolated systems has unlocked unprecedented potential for efficiency, productivity, and innovation. It is a dynamic process with a future that holds significant implications for businesses and industries alike. However, it has also exposed organisations to new and evolving challenges and cybersecurity risks. It is vital that we implement appropriate strategies to mitigate these risks so as not to compromise ongoing digital transformation efforts. Prioritising alignment in technologies will help to make the transition and the complete system more seamless and secure.
Understanding OT and IT
In order to fully comprehend OT-IT convergence, it is essential to distinguish between the two.
OT involves systems and technologies used to monitor and control physical processes such as manufacturing lines, power plants, and industrial equipment. Reliability, real-time processing, and stability are primary considerations for OT systems.
IT includes computing and data management systems used for administrative and business operations. Central to IT systems are flexibility, scalability, data processing systems, and the capability to deliver services on the same network for different organisational groups independently.
The traditional divide between OT and IT stemmed from their distinct purposes, requirements, and technologies. OT systems prioritise physical processes’ stability and continuity, while IT systems focus on data processing, analysis, and connectivity. However, the convergence of these domains is reshaping the way organisations operate.
The forces behind OT-IT convergence
There are several factors driving the convergence of OT and IT:
- Efficiency and cost reduction: Combining OT over IT systems can lead to streamlined operations, reduced downtime, and cost savings. For instance, remote management and data analytics can optimise industrial processes, reducing waste and energy consumption.
- Data-driven decision-making: The integration of OT through IT systems enables organisations to collect and analyse large amounts of real-time data from operational processes. This data can inform better decision-making, allowing for predictive maintenance, improved quality control, and enhanced supply chain management. In the energy and utilities space, energy operators are able to utilise sensors and other devices to collect performance data, and then use this data to optimise distribution processes.
- Innovation: The ability to connect devices and sensors in the field with IT systems fosters innovation. It enables the development of smart products and new capabilities, such as autonomous vehicles, while offering the benefits of remote monitoring and control. This can be of particular use for organisations operating in dangerous environments and in mobility situations.
- Competitive advantage: Companies that successfully converge OT and IT can gain a competitive edge by accelerating their processes and adapting more quickly to market changes, responding faster to customer demands, and creating new revenue streams.
Challenges in OT-IT convergence
In the realm of OT-IT convergence, the benefits are abundant. Although, it must be said that the merging of the traditionally separate domains introduces a host of challenges and vulnerabilities with the increased connectivity, threats to cybersecurity are also amplified and cannot be ignored on the path to digital transformation.
One of the main challenges comes from ensuring the cybersecurity of newly connected industrial processes. The integration of traditionally isolated OT systems into the IT network exposes them to cyber threats that conventional IT systems are used to facing but with a direct operational impact, such as activating a device or switching a system on or off. In conjunction, they can rebound and contaminate the IT domain. These cybersecurity risks are magnified due to the increased surface area, and attacks are not limited to the loss of sensitive data, but also raise the risk of physical damage.
Another crucial factor to consider is how legacy equipment fits within OT-IT convergence. Many OT systems rely on legacy hardware and software devoid of contemporary security features. Replacing or updating these systems may present a formidable challenge with its complexity and time-consumption, potentially creating further vulnerabilities in the interim. OT-IT convergence requires a technology leap, having all systems supporting one another, to fully bridge to gap between the differing protocols and interfaces of OT and IT systems.
Minimising cybersecurity threats
To mitigate cybersecurity risks in the context of OT-IT convergence while maintaining the momentum of digital transformation, organisations must strike a delicate balance. It is crucial to embark on a comprehensive risk assessment that identifies potential threats, vulnerabilities, and the criticality of various assets. Prioritising security measures based on the essential OT systems enhances the safeguarding of the most vital processes and assets.
Cybersecurity protection is comparable to the layers of an onion, with each layer bringing a certain level of protection for a particular purpose. Utilising traditional IT security tools such as authentication, encryption, firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and access controls in order to appropriately implement segmentation and, most likely, micro-segmentation, reinforces this layering. However, I will not cover here the full cybersecurity manual and would rather direct you to the “Zero Trust Network Approach” literature. It must be said that a proactive approach to identifying weaknesses at the earliest stage ensures the viability of the system.
It is crucial to pay particular attention to the access layer of your network, where sensors and traditional OT systems are connected either directly or through gateways to your IT systems. Where OT traditionally deploys a simple but unmanageable access switch, a cybersecure access switch should be used. Those are the first layers of protection for the rest of the entire system. Nothing should enter the network without being monitored and preauthorised. Regular auditing of activities is essential for detecting unauthorised or suspicious behaviour and is a key step in prevention.
Combatting further challenges
As the integration of OT and IT systems continues to evolve, it has become imperative for organisations to create cross-functional teams and increase smooth collaboration. These interdisciplinary teams will play a pivotal role in ensuring that OT and IT systems are not only effectively integrated but also aligned with the overarching objectives and missions of the organisation without jeopardising security.
Equally as important as securing processes is the appropriate training of employees and skill development. Organisations will need to invest in the training and development of their workforce to manage the convergence between OT and IT, even when relying on third-party management, to ensure a continuity of awareness throughout.
From silos to synergy
The future of OT-IT convergence is undoubtedly promising, with the potential for increased innovation, efficiency, productivity and further connectivity. However, mitigating the associated risks and challenges requires a holistic and proactive approach.
A change in the company culture is needed, highlighting the importance of technological alignments when fostering innovation and maintaining security in all aspects of operations. This includes a combination of technical solutions, policy development, and user education for cross-functional teams.
Despite the complexities and associated cyber threats, OT-IT convergence is proving to be another step forward in digital transformation and those adapting to the challenges will be optimally positioned to reap its full benefits while preserving the security of their critical infrastructure.