IT-OT Convergence Has Always Been The Path Forward

May 14, 2022
Long before Industry 4.0 and cloud-connected architectures became possible, innovators championed PC-based technologies for industrial automation.

As Industry 4.0 and IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) concepts become real applications, an exciting conversation has developed centered on the integration of information technology (IT) with operations technology (OT). Large IT companies have actively promoted ideas like workload consolidation for businesses to optimize processes and be more competitive. Some of the largest players in automation technology (AT) are jumping on board. Greater system openness, real-time deterministic control with many-core processors, the incorporation of web technologies and machine learning, among other advances, are all possible through applying popular technologies to industrial applications.

IT and OT convergence offers incredible benefits to machine control architectures today—just as it has for more than 30 years. While many suppliers are just beginning to integrate PC-based technology into industrial automation, it is nothing new. The history of IT-OT convergence in automation technology dates back to the early 1980s with the advent of the modern PC and those who saw its potential for industrial use. The adaptation of these ideas follows the diffusion of innovations theory, which describes how new technologies are adopted in order by the innovators (2.5%), early adopters (13.5%), early majority (34%), late majority (34%) and, finally, the laggards (16%).

PC-focused innovation in the 1980s
During this era, the larger technology world began to develop the personal computer (PC) and related technologies for widespread business and consumer use far beyond 1970s levels. This led to transformations in standard chip sets, board designs, and sophisticated operating systems. At that time, most industrial technology companies stayed away from the PC path. The PLC platforms of the time used proprietary chip sets, board designs and, in most cases, programming software. Traditional PLC technology for machine control evolved much slower than it should have due to an industry-wide aversion to change. As a result, the paths of hardware PLCs and consumer PCs would not begin to converge for decades.

While the majority of industrial vendors and manufacturers initially shunned IT technology on the plant floor, smaller start-up companies recognized that both technologies could coexist. Using proven industrial standards and computer science innovations, smaller AT companies began the convergence of IT and OT in manufacturing.

Early adopters of the 1990s
In the 1990s, both technologies continued to advance, with IT pioneers running laps around traditional OT. The popularity of Windows exploded, and it became ubiquitous in nearly every area of technology. By launching Visual Studio in 1997, Microsoft combined a number of programming languages in a single environment, which continues to evolve to this day. Industrial vendors that began implementing PC-based automation technologies in the previous decade saw significant gains in hardware and software performance that far outpaced traditional PLCs. The successful companies created new tools for deterministic, real-time control that could run on industrial PCs with standardized operating systems.

More automation vendors saw this opportunity and launched computer-based controls. However, these early adopters realized that developing their own software from scratch was quite costly. They started using off-the-shelf real-time operating systems, but often didn’t widely promote the solutions. Some notable crash-and-burns gave PC-based platforms a bad reputation during this time. However, many platforms were providing incredible results in the field, extending their lead in performance over traditional PLCs.

Early majority from 2000 onward
The turn of the millennium brought further developments in software and multi-core processors. Major IT players like Intel, IBM, and Microsoft actively expanded into OT. Likewise, a determined subset of the automation space kept integrating IT with increased real-time capabilities.

Along with these automation and control advances, another major development involved networking. Industrial Ethernet protocols, such as Ether-CAT, created significant performance improvements and a path forward from legacy fieldbuses. This is another example of IT and OT convergence, with Ethernet merging with fieldbus technology. Ether- CAT eliminated the complexity and cost of switches and additional hardware while providing deterministic control with up to 65,535 devices per network. This resulted from the same PC-based control innovators who carefully considered the potential of industrial Ethernet—combining its openness and acceptance with the functionality of a fieldbus.

Today’s late majority
From automation software apps on smartphones to many-core Intel Xeon processors in controllers, IT-OT convergence continues to accelerate today. For example, contemporary HMIs now commonly rely on web technologies, and standards such as MQTT and JSON are being implemented in IIoT contexts.

Gigabit Ethernet technologies such as Ether-CAT G are also becoming key as machines become more complex. The industry is also beginning to apply machine learning and other artificial intelligence technologies.

Fortunately, the reluctance of manufacturers to implement PC-based technologies continues to evaporate as they see the benefits of IT technologies in industry. The decades of IT-OT advances have shown that any IT principle carried over to OT products must be deterministic, reliable, available for many years and implemented efficiently. Done correctly, IT-OT integration produces results far better than what traditional platforms can accomplish.

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