Five key barriers to IT/OT integration and how to overcome them

Operational Technology (OT) consists of hardware and software that are designed to detect or cause changes in physical processes through direct monitoring and control of devices. As companies increasingly embrace OT, they face a dilemma as to whether to keep these new systems independent or integrate them with their existing IT systems. As IT leaders evaluate the alternatives, there are 5 key barriers to IT/OT integration to consider.

Business Process Knowledge – OT is an integrated part of the physical process itself and requires subject matter experts with both business process knowledge as well as technical skills related to the OT devices being used. IT staff members are often strong technologists, but lack the business and physical process expertise needed to support OT. Increasingly, companies are overcoming this challenge either through training manufacturing and operations staff on the technical skills or leveraging the use of a specialized partner to support the OT implementations.

Manageability & Support – OT systems are often distributed across geographic locations separate from the IT staff and are costly to connect to centralized management resources. This makes monitoring, control and the management of incidents and problems more difficult and costly. Remote management capabilities, advanced diagnostics, designed redundancies and self-healing capabilities built into the OT devices help overcome these challenges, at a price.

Dependency Risk – Two of the key challenges of enterprise IT environments are managing the complex web of dependencies and managing the risk of service impact when a dependent component fails or is unavailable. With traditional IT, the impact is typical to some human activity, and the user is able to mitigate impact through some type of manual activity. For OT, companies must be very careful managing the dependencies on IT components to avoid the risk of impacting physical processes when and where humans are not available to intervene and mitigate the situation. Since mitigation may not be an option with OT, controlling the dependencies is often the best approach to avoid impact.

Management of OT Data – The data produced by OT devices can be large, diverse in content, time sensitive for consumption and geographically distributed (sometimes not even connected to the corporate network). In comparison, most IT systems have some level of tolerance for time delays, are relatively constrained in size and content and reliably connected to company networks, making them accessible to the IT staff for data management and support. With OT systems, a company will need to decide whether the integration of the data into the overall enterprise data picture is necessary or whether the data created by the OT system can be left self-contained locally.

Security – IT systems are a common target for malicious behavior by those wishing to harm the company. The integration of OT systems with IT creates additional vulnerability targets with the potential of impacting not just people and data, but also physical processes. Segmentation of IT and OT systems to prevent cross-over security vulnerabilities as well as targeted security measures for the OT systems can help companies mitigate this risk.

Operational Technology has an important role in manufacturing and operations automation and in enabling the digital enterprise. As IT leaders and their organizations learn to embrace this technology in the overall IT landscape, there are some key decisions that must be made about where to integrate with existing systems and how to do it in a way that mitigates cost and risk. The impact of OT on IT cannot be underestimated.

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