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Using industrial software to converge operational and information technology
Published:  13 May, 2021

As Industry 4.0 drives businesses towards greater levels of data awareness and automation, operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT) are merging together. The challenge is on for manufacturers to link ageing OT systems with new IT technologies, while also maintaining the highest levels of connectivity and security — but how? Here, Stefan Reuther, chief sales officer at COPA-DATA, explains why industrial software holds the key.

According to legend, Alexander the Great once faced an impossibly complex knot. Rather than attempting to unravel the gordian knot, he simply cut through the ropes to solve the puzzle. In short, sometimes the simplest solution is the best. This principal can also be applied to a very modern puzzle: how to successfully converge OT and IT.

Historically, OT and IT have been two separate disciplines — completely different in terms of technology, organisation and attitude. IT systems are responsible for creating, processing and securely storing data. On the other hand, OT systems tend to deal with processes that take place in the physical world, such as managing and controlling industrial operations.

IT-OT convergence means to integrate these two disciplines, which can open a whole host of benefits for manufacturers. Possible advantages include greater data visibility, simplified systems, increased productivity and a reduction in unplanned downtime.

What’s more, there is a growing need for IT-OT convergence. As the fourth industrial revolution sweeps through the manufacturing sector, more businesses are implementing industrial internet of things (IIoT) technologies, from smart sensors to automated production lines. Data collected by these technologies can be used to streamline production processes, fix critical issues faster and make better informed decisions — but only if it’s collected, transmitted and processed effectively and securely.

This is where IT-OT convergence comes in. It’s regarded as the next step towards creating a more efficient, more connected factory — but how should manufacturers go about achieving it?

Problems of age

OT and IT can benefit from each other. Generally, it can be said that OT yields the benefits of real-time visibility while IT-driven systems rely on historic data. By combining the two, data sharing can happen across a whole organisation, enabling decision-makers to analyse machine-generated data in real time.

For manufacturers to effectively converge their IT and OT, they must ensure workers in these two areas share a mutual understanding. First, IT specialists must consider that OT has been on factory floors for more than two decades but is only now being connected to the internet. Therefore, introducing connectivity to these outdated operating systems can create vulnerabilities across the entire value chain.

Second, for the majority of manufacturers, it is nearly impossible to completely replace or upgrade their working OT systems. Not only does this require a huge investment, companies may be required to shut down the factory floor for the duration of the refit — losing them both time and money.

To ensure a successful and secure IT/OT convergence, all systems must be kept up to date where feasible. This gets more challenging as the age of OT equipment increases — there are greater risks of system failure, more difficulty in sourcing spare parts and so on.

Fortunately, industrial software offers a solution.

Speaking the same language

They say communication is key to any healthy relationship, and that’s also true when converging IT and OT systems. Put simply, OT and IT systems can be made to speak the same language if they are based on a common software platform.

Software is one of the key drivers behind industry 4.0 and — as with IT and OT convergence itself — should be considered a priority to create a truly-connected smart factory. Unlike traditional manufacturing execution systems (MES), new and more agile software platforms can help consolidate and manage different data streams within an organisation, from corporate level enterprise data through to field- and process-level automation.

These industrial software platforms include COPA-DATA’s zenon that uses open interfaces and supports industry standards. zenon can be integrated easily with existing, legacy systems and expanded with third party components.

But connecting OT assets isn’t without risk. A successful cyberattack on an OT control system or connected devices — including components like valves or switches — can result in damaging physical consequences to critical infrastructure and services, the environment or even human life.

These kinds of cyberattack are worryingly common, as nearly 90 per cent of organizations with connected OT infrastructures have experienced a security breach.

So, it is vital that IT-OT convergence doesn’t leave facilities more vulnerable to cyberattacks. Fortunately, the zenon industrial software platform addresses security issues by ensuring all systems across a manufacturing plant uphold the same security standards. The software is able to encrypt communications, ensure binaries are signed and support the development of regular updates and security patches.

Like Alexander the Great’s gordian knot all those centuries ago, IT-OT convergence can be complex. However, with industrial software, we can learn from Alexander’s simple approach to solving a complex problem. By connecting legacy OT and newer IT systems across a secure industrial software platform like zenon, manufacturers have a simple solution that can cut through major obstacles with optimised security and minimised costs.

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