Smart Machines & Factories
IT / OT - an Unbridgeable Gap?
Published:  02 June, 2017

In an increasingly competitive sector, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) offers oil and gas companies opportunities that would previously been almost unimaginable. By harnessing sensor data, Big Data analytics and machine-to-machine communication (M2M), unprecedented levels of efficiency become possible. The disruptive power of this technology is absolutely enormous. Andy Bailey, Stratus Solutions Architect reports.

In order to unlock all this potential, there is an obstacle that must first be overcome: the technological and cultural clash between information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT). Where IT is subjected to constant updates and improvements, OT is quite different. Stability and guaranteed uptime are the watchwords here, and change is not always welcome. Marrying these competing priorities presents very real challenges, so historically IT and OT have been kept as far apart from one another as possible. The IIoT is fundamentally about combining these two aspects of the business into a single highly-integrated system and so the challenge is not just technical but also cultural. Different protocols, different training and different day-to-day objectives must all be synthesized in order to merge IT and OT well enough to get the benefit of an IIoT installation.

This challenge to the long-established order of things has created a new status quo in which data shared from machine sensors and OT systems (including Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) systems must work in harmony with Enterprise Resource Planning and other systems managed by IT departments. What can oil and gas companies do to square the circle?

Three possible solutions

One way of getting OT and IT to work together is simply to fold one department into another. In practice this usually means OT staff migrating to the existing IT team. Straightforward though this sounds, oil and water won’t mix on their own. Without an outside influence to bind them, the two group’s pursuit of competing objectives will damage operational cohesion and render unobtainable the many benefits of an IIoT installation. For example, the standards-based approach taken by IT teams may conflict with the specialised outlook that is customary for OT teams. In order for this solution to work, Operational Technologists must have strong representation in the new combined team.

An alternative approach is to keep the same personnel from both teams, but totally repackage the combined OT/IT team making no distinction between the two groups. This has some advantages over maintaining the traditional distinctions, but can only really work in new organisations or companies that are spinning a department off elsewhere. Established, large and complex operations like the ones in the oil and gas sector use significant amounts of legacy infrastructure, and so disruption on this kind of scale is simply out of the question for anybody who values operational stability.

The third option represents a kind of third way between the other two, and has only recently become possible with the advent of “industrial technologists”. With loyalty neither to IT or OT, industrial technologists are equally at home with either and understand the need to balance the needs of both. A team of industrial technologists is an incredibly valuable thing to have running an IIoT system.

Demonstrating the benefits for OT

For most organisations, bridging the cultural gap between OT and IT is likely to be a gradual process. An important step in this process is to effectively demonstrate the value of the IIoT to the OT team, securing by-in in that way rather than taking a purely top-down approach.

One example from the gas gathering field of a way in which the IIoT can help operational technologists is in automating the process of reconciling the production imbalance sheet. IIoT technology has made the fiddly and inexact process of doing it manually unnecessary – all remote facilities need to do is relay their sensor data to the central analytics system and it does the rest. This gives OT teams access to accurate system data in almost real time, from across the entire range of production sources.

Another example comes from the World of predictive maintenance. With sensor data automatically collated, OT teams can set precise working parameters for the hardware that will flag up any anomalous readings as soon as they happen. This means that vibration patterns or temperature spikes in sensitive equipment can be detected and investigated before a catastrophic failure takes place. Reducing unplanned downtime is the holy grail for OT, and the IIoT technology also allows teams to calculate the optimum maintenance and replacement intervals. Reduced downtime, reduced capital expenditure, more efficiency. The benefits to the enterprise are clear.

Minimising risk

The complexity inherent in merging OT and IT functions makes risk management a critical component of success. OT needs to know that SCADA systems and the enterprise’s data will be secure and functioning normally at all times. Fault tolerance needs to be baked-in and anything mission-critical must be carefully shielded from shocks and interference if availability is to be properly maintained.

Given the cost pressures at work within industry, maintaining availability has never been more important. Efficiencies made unavoidable by the fierceness of the competition have seen staffing levels cut dramatically and this only increases pressure on enterprises to avoid unplanned downtime. Failures at remote and unmanned locations may require a technician to travel at short notice to the site to make the necessary repairs, where once there would have been several on hand to take care of the problem. When something like that happens, there is a tendency for OT and IT teams to clash over the reasons for the fault. All of this can be avoided by building in robust availability systems.

The only two alternatives are to avoid the IIoT altogether, which would be extremely bold given the direction that industry is heading in, or fail to prepare and therefore be subject to unexpected, expensive and divisive downtime episodes. Only by carefully and methodically bringing OT and IT together in a way that mitigates risk can the intelligent energy enterprise unlock the benefits of the IIoT.

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