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IT + OT: No to Convergence, Yes to Multifunctional Collaboration

By Alejandro Preinfalk - Siemens Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean


By Alejandro Preinfalk | CEO & President - Fri, 03/17/2023 - 11:00

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For decades, the IT (information technologies) and OT (operational technologies) areas have worked in silos. Given their nature, it was thought that they belonged to different worlds: the primary equipment to deal with information systems (networks, servers, data, digitalization, virtualization, clouds), and the secondary equipment to manage industrial processes and equipment (manufacturing machinery, control systems, programmable logic controllers, electromechanical automation, industrial networks).

From the outset of Industry 4.0, organizations from sectors like manufacturing or energy began taking steps to further digitalize their processes. As a result, people started to discuss the need for IT/OT convergence, encompassing the merger of both areas to create a common dominion, one governed by experience, methodologies, devices, and tools used by the IT team, in the understanding that this could be transparently applied to a manufacturing plant environment; for example, as is currently being done with front-office and back-office technology and systems operations. 

At Siemens, we see this as a misleading proposition, and we firmly believe it is important to modify this strategic approach as soon as possible, especially given the fact that, according to a recent f5 survey, global decision-makers deem that the leading technology issue over the next several years will be IT/OT convergence, according to 43% of respondents, surpassing both 5G and a Zero Trust security approach, for example.

Our vision does not encompass the convergence of IT and OT, but, rather, companies focusing on both areas to drive deep-rooted, multifunctional and proactive collaboration, in which the intellectual power, knowledge, and expertise of each team are pooled to drive the digitalization of 100% of the operations. We are fully aware that this is a major shift, so we would like to offer a step-by-step explanation of why we should say no to convergence and yes to collaboration.

The Myth of IT/OT Convergence

From the outside, this practice may seem a sensible one. It is common to hear of success stories focusing on the adoption of IT elements: Ethernet-enabled wired and wireless LAN rolled out by OT engineers to cover the needs of a diverse industrial environment (one that encompasses warehouses, manufacturing plants, logistics facilities, and more), and the use of business technologies, such as the cloud, big data, and advanced analytics, to enrich Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) initiatives are examples that have led to reductions in not only costs, but also time and errors, not to mention driving greater interconnection, operational visibility and transparency, and the improved leveraging of assets for some businesses.

However, there is a reason why leading global industrial companies are not moving toward IT/OT convergence: they know that this is not the solution. It is like, for example, trying to take advantage of trends like big data and IIoT (to jointly improve business decision-making times and the use of OT equipment and machines) by lumping IT methodology and IT/OT data processing together, which leads to an oversight regarding the particularities of operational technologies – which do not generate information that is of use to the business – and failure is all but assured.

The same thing happens when trying to apply IT to complex OT applications, which have their life cycles and priorities, and which require specific knowledge, such as the automation of Industrial Control Systems (ICS), or Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA), among other examples within the OT sphere. The automation of OT requires high-precision synchronicity (a question of milliseconds) across hundreds or thousands of devices, such as sensors, valves, and others, and it is not possible to cross your fingers and hope for the best (as you can in IT) given that even the smallest delay –  be it even half a second –  could compromise an entire production line and all this entails in terms of costs, compliance and accidents, among others.

There are numerous other aspects surrounding IT/OT convergence that could signify an immediate danger, such as the possibility of a defective product or an irreversible impact on the environment stemming from technological failures or greater vulnerability to cyberattacks by connecting machinery and control systems from the OT world to open business networks.

The True Objective of IT/OT Collaboration

What is truly needed is the creation of an integrated network strategy developed in conjunction with IT and OT teams through the implementation of industrial-grade network technologies based on tried and tested standards. As part of this scenario, the industrial network is not just another component, but rather the strategic backbone of the production systems, and it is capable of facilitating the end-to-end digitalization of industrial companies. 

The goal is to create digital threads for data that transparently and seamlessly work together throughout the entire organization, from the production plant to the executive boardroom, as well as at any intermediary location, including remotely. Does this sound like an insurmountable challenge? Well, here are some tips:

  • The approach should focus on the unique requirements of the production operations while constantly managing downtime and security risks.

  • OT teams should talk to their IT team counterparts about the principles, protocols, architecture features, and any other details relating to the operation, administration, and management of problems relating to the existing and planned industrial networks.

  • All relevant parties involved in the digitalization of the industrial and business operations must reach a consensus regarding the most crucial metrics for the organization and those that require improvement.

  • A culture of collaboration is required to better understand specific terminology and design requirements, levels of criticality, and other details of the different network environments.

  • An experienced partner to facilitate the construction of this collaborative environment will play a fundamental role in the success of the initiative.

At Siemens, we are aware that fully understanding IT and OT is the foundation for both teams to be able to work together to drive visibility, flexibility, production safety, and operational efficiency. We are ready and prepared to help our clients achieve this.

Photo by:   Alejandro Preinfalk

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