In recent years, it has become evident that manufacturers can boost productivity and drive efficiencies by converging Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) systems. But what is IT/OT convergence, and how can it be achieved effectively?

In this post, we’ll provide an in-depth comparison of IT and OT and how manufacturers are leveraging composable, digital systems to connect the tools and equipment being used on the shop floor with the back-end systems powering their operations.

Let’s start with a high-level review of the differences between IT and OT.

Key differences between IT and OT

To appreciate the benefits IT/OT convergence can offer industrial organizations, it’s important to understand what these two technologies are and how they differ.

What is IT?

IT can be defined as the computer, data storage, and networking infrastructure and processes that are used to create, process, store, secure, and exchange all forms of electronic data. It is the data processing systems that serve as the repositories for an organization’s information, making data available to business applications and users of those apps.

While IT systems are the repositories and processors of data, their OT counterparts are responsible for generating the information processed by IT.

What is OT?

OT systems monitor events, processes, and physical devices, and make adjustments in enterprise and industrial operations. In manufacturing environments, OT systems typically include computerized numerical control (CNC) machining systems and industrial control systems such as supervisory control and data acquisition.

Key differences between IT and OT

In simple terms, the difference between IT and OT systems is that IT is focused on data and communication, whereas OT is focused on behaviors and outcomes.

Connectivity is an inherent trait of IT systems, whereas OT systems (particularly older ones) tend not to be natively connectable. Most control systems are not networked, making it difficult for them to communicate or share information. Even centralized control equipment has traditionally used closed or proprietary communications protocols.

Venn Diagram of IT and OT
The connected factory is achievable for manufacturers of all sizes. IT/OT convergence makes more tangible steps to having a connected factory.

The rise of IT/OT Convergence

Today, many manufacturers find themselves dealing with two types of technology: physical (OT) and digital (IT).

The physical side includes the machines, industrial equipment, and manufacturing systems that have always been at the heart of any factory operation.

Then there is the newer digital technology: the servers, storage, and networking devices responsible for running the applications and generating the data that drives modern business processes.

Until recently, it made sense to keep these two domains separate, but the growth of technologies such as big data analytics and the Industrial Internet of Things (IoT) has changed the game. There is now a strong case for bringing business processes, insights, and controls together through what has become known as IT/OT convergence.

For organizations with a heavy reliance on OT assets, including manufacturers, IT/OT convergence offers the potential for cost savings and resource efficiencies. It allows insights provided through sales and inventory data to be fed into the operational side of the business, enabling manufacturing equipment and power use to be optimized.

The importance of balancing IT and OT

While IT/OT convergence can enhance operations significantly, organizations need to be mindful of finding the correct balance between reaping the benefits of modernizing their OT systems through IT integrations and, at the same time, ensuring security is maintained.

Overcoming the connectivity issue between IT and OT systems presents the major upside of IT/OT convergence. But achieving it securely is also likely to be the biggest challenge associated with a convergence project.

The strengths of having a converged IT/OT operation include a less siloed relationship between an organization’s IT and OT departments, who will find themselves working more closely together to manage the converged technology. A positive flow-on impact of this is reduced development, operational, and support costs. With more OT equipment data being analyzed, unplanned downtime will be reduced as predictive maintenance becomes more feasible.

The improved visibility, management, and auditing made possible due to IT/OT convergence also results in improved compliance with regulatory standards. Perhaps most importantly, at least from a bottom-line perspective, it will result in more efficient energy and resource usage, reduced operational costs, and faster time to market.

Weighed against these benefits are the IoT security challenges and complications organizations face when converging IT and OT systems.

OT systems were traditionally not built with internet connectivity in mind and, in many cases, an organization’s OT systems may have been in place decades longer than its IT systems. The security ramifications of these factors need to be considered when embarking on a convergence project, which will require the OT systems to be retrofitted with IoT devices and proper security controls.

A further complication is that OT systems, as well as being relied upon to uphold critical infrastructure, are often distributed, making for a larger attack surface. These vulnerabilities can expose critical infrastructure to the risk of industrial espionage and sabotage.

A worthwhile investment

While achieving IT/OT convergence may take some work, the upside for manufacturers is that the benefits of running a converged system can be significant.

When IT and OT are seamlessly integrated, factory operators have more direct control over their manufacturing processes and the ability to monitor their operations. They can easily analyze data from complex systems in real-time, unleashing a new level of improved decision-making and operational efficiency.

Tulip’s connective functionality provides a perfect tool for enabling IT/OT convergency by allowing manufacturers to connect their IoT devices, machines, and operators with the enterprise systems being used by the business.

Using Tulip, manufacturers are able to aggregate data from the various machines, departments, or production processes into a single dashboard for real-time process visibility.

If you’re interested in learning how Tulip can help bridge the gap between IT and OT systems, reach out to a member of our team today!

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