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OT Has a Mission-Critical Role

In an increasingly connected age, operational technology’s importance continues to grow. Understanding and addressing that criticality will offer a competitive advantage and lead to greater profitability.

Brett Brack, operational technology analyst, Bachelor Controls
Brett Brack, operational technology analyst, Bachelor Controls

Last week while attending a presentation involving cybersecurity and cloud-first/mobile-first solutions, one of the attendees asked the question: “What is OT?” I found myself asking that same question at a conference a few years ago. Although OT has been defined for many years, many people are just now beginning to hear of it.

In simplest terms, operational technology (OT) is information technology (IT) applied to industrial control solutions—the plant floor. These days, the OT concept is growing exponentially, driven by a convergence of technologies that have found their way to the plant floor. This convergence is largely enabled by the maturity of existing technologies, including the standardization of Ethernet, robust and reliable Internet service, the cloud, low-cost data storage, and wireless connectivity.

This truly is a global phenomenon being described around the world in different terms: Internet of Things (IoT), Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Industry 4.0, Smart Manufacturing, The Connected Enterprise, Digital Manufacturing, Made in China 2025, Factory of the Future, and others. No industry will be left untouched. Manufacturing organizations are restructuring, creating new roles to better use data to work more efficiently and increase profits. OT is the backbone of the information system on the plant floor.

Industrial networks have existed for a long time. In the past, they were mostly isolated from the enterprise network, and the IT department, exchanging data on a limited basis. Today, plant floor networks are becoming more fully integrated into the enterprise network and beyond. Unlike traditional IT networks, though, OT is subject to harsh environments like electrical noise, dirt and other environmental factors. Successful OT requires the depth of knowledge of IT and an understanding of industrial control solutions.

Considering the characteristics of a mission-critical network, the first things that come to mind are uptime and service-level agreements (SLAs). SLAs are stated terms of availability that a company guarantees they will provide. It is likely that you have heard of the Five nines (99.999 percent), which has become the standard bearer for uptime. Companies have gone to great lengths to achieve that level of uptime through industry-leading equipment and redundancy where possible. Virtualization and clustering technologies allow companies to update and scale without disruption. Updates are tested thoroughly in simulation environments before being released to production, and a robust fallback system is in place with immediate recovery capabilities.

Another consideration, especially in the age of connectivity, is cybersecurity. Mission-critical systems commonly include defense-in-depth principles such as firewall access rules, DMZs, intrusion prevention, breach detection systems, proxy servers, content filtering, application whitelisting, antivirus/malware, and data and network encryption. Workstation peripheral ports are disabled to prevent infection via external hard drives or flash devices. One of the most widely adopted cybersecurity frameworks is the NIST Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity, which is based on five main principles: identify, protect, detect, respond, recover.

Unlike traditional IT networks, OT networks could include the responsibilities of a safety-critical system with the ability to put processes and machinery components in a safe state to avoid safety, health and environmental consequences. Another difference is the use of real-time components in OT. In addition to controls and automation existing on OT networks, data analysis is being done in real time on the same networks. Looking at reports of the past 30 days, week or even shift can offer great insights, but still leave customers unable to take timely profit-related corrective action. Real-time data analytics offer an immediate contribution to profitability.

As we continue to move into this age of connectivity, the mission-critical role of OT will only grow. Manufacturing operations, to include automation, are becoming more and more dependent on network reliability. If the network is down, operations is down, and customers are losing money every minute they are down. Addressing OT as mission-critical will offer a competitive advantage and lead to greater profitability.

Brett Brack is operational technology analyst and Larry Asher is director of operations at Bachelor Controls, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Bachelor Controls, visit the company’s profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.


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