What Is The Difference Between IT and OT?

Let’s be honest: The technology world is full of acronyms. Today’s hyper-digital world is fast-paced and intensely collaborative, and acronyms may seem like a way to cut down on redundancies in language — but what happens when they interfere with day-to-day business? 

Information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) aren’t niche. Unfortunately, the two sound almost identical,and some businesses use them interchangeably despite their different definitions and requirements. These distinctions are especially important in the context of Industry 4.0, which combines smart tech and Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled devices with traditional systems. 

We’re in the midst of an IT and OT convergence, making understanding the spaces and how they interact crucial. Here’s everything you need to know about IT and OT and how they will change industry forever.

Defining Information Technology

IT deals with the transfer of information throughout a business in nearly every capacity, and includes the hardware, software, and systems that make such transfers happen. Its overarching goal is to establish data flows and uniformity across tech ecosystems. Nearly everything information-related falls under the scope of IT, including:

  • Networking
  • Servers
  • Storage
  • Smartphones
  • Email
  • Databases
  • Cloud-based servers
  • Software-as-a-service (SaaS) apps such as Salesforce or Microsoft Office
  • Hardware
  • Software

Most organizations’ IT teams have three primary goals — resiliency, uniformity, and business value — which are achieved by professionals who typically have experience in programming or networking and may have tech-related higher education degrees. The space involves jobs like:

  • Data analysts
  • Data scientists
  • Computer technicians
  • Administrators
  • Chief information officers
  • Systems analysts

In other words, the IT background is digital-centric and almost always involves computers.

Defining Operational Technology

While IT includes programs and systems needed to connect businesses’ many operations, OT primarily deals with industrial equipment technology — the hyper-mechanical machines that require a specific skill set. It involves systems that interface with the physical world, and often deals with less homogenous and resilient machines from specialized vendors.

Some examples of OT include:

  • Embedded systems
  • Printed logic circuits
  • Chips
  • Machinery
  • Plant equipment
  • Mining equipment
  • Supervisory control and data analytics (SCADA) equipment
  • Remote terminal units (RTUs)

OT traditionally emphasises physical processes like the machinery or operations that control heat, power grids, water flow, and other such interactions. Professionals in the space need to be immediately available as boots-on-the-ground when things go wrong or require adjustments. It has two main goals — availability and systems integrity — too, which are achieved by experts with mechanical or engineering backgrounds such as:

  • OT engineers
  • Systems engineers
  • Systems architects

These roles are primarily geared toward engineers with a grasp on physical and mechanical operations.

What’s Driving the Convergence of IT and OT?

IT and OT don’t usually play together, but everyone needs to collaborate as Industry 4.0 converges with Globalization 4.0 and digital transformation. Here’s what to keep in mind:

  • OT systems generate a lot of information. 
  • This data was previously used to make real-time decisions on the machines themselves. 
  • For example, an OT professional would be notified to make adjustments and prevent damages to the machine or products if a temperature reached a certain level. 

It’s hard to justify keeping that data in a machine-bound silo in today’s digitally evolved ecosystem, however. That data can be used to predict machine downtime, run through deep machine learning programs to identify cost-saving capabilities, and be leveraged by predictive analytical systems to better understand forecasting and budgeting. 

The Main Issue

OT environments can be large and unruly, with the average mid-sized plant housing 200-plus individual pieces of equipment purchased at different times from different vendors — often forcing each to use their own proprietary systems. The average industrial tech stack’s complexity is already confounding, so trying to glue IT and OT together is a massive undertaking.

The Big Carrot 

Global management consulting company & Company McKinsey estimates that IoT-driven predictive maintenance could save companies more than $600 billion by 2025, and suggests doing so will cut overall equipment downtime in half. Companies need to bridge the IT-OT gap to take advantage of predictive maintenance, though — not to mention the other value levers of IoT. 

All these new value buckets, technologies, and strategies on the cusp of bringing unparalleled growth, cost-effectiveness, and productivity to the industrial space require you to cover IT and OT. There are plenty of plans aimed at making this happen, but something crucial — security — could put a wrench in this fabulous merger.

The Importance of Cybersecurity in IT and OT

OT systems have almost always been air-gapped, as they don’t connect to other networks and exist in their own unique ecosystems. That means you have problems when you suddenly merge them with your IT networks to produce value for IoT:

  • OT equipment becomes vulnerable to forces to which it has long been immune in the security space. 
  • 60% of organizations experienced a breach in their ICS or SCADA systems in 2018.
  • 97% of organizations admitted they faced new security challenges due to the convergence of IT and OT.

Cybersecurity is the single greatest threat to the IT-OT convergence, but is often left out of the conversation. Most factories aren’t putting it at the top of their tasks during digital transformation, for example. They’re instead chasing opportunities to boost supply chains and match shifting consumer preferences, which creates competitive advantages but can also damage business.

Fixing this issue requires going beyond tech and building holistic cybersecurity policies. This involves aligning your teams:

  • Security officers are often hinged to IT, but you have to discover a way to inspire both teams to focus on the same security threat now that OT is coming into the IT space. 
  • This isn’t a rallying call, but a wake-up one. 
  • If you’re planning (or have already implemented) an IT-OT merger, you need to create a unified security management plan that unites everyone. 
  • Governance and policies need to be created that apply to both OT and IT, and decisions need to be made from a security-centric perspective.

Billions of IoT devices combined with an OT-IT convergence that brings networking to once-siloed equipment can be a recipe for disaster. Plan ahead, or you may be focused less on finding value in Industry 4.0 and more on finding a way to mitigate data breaches.

Planning for the Future

Organizations are hungry to merge IT and OT, but these two once-separate units are on a crash course without the right preparation in place. The main question to ask is whether industrial companies are considering the very real threats looming on the horizon.

At Option3Ventures, our team is focused on helping individuals and organizations understand the emerging technology space and how best to navigate it. We’ve been aiding interested parties in opportunities to contribute to strategic cybersecurity investments for years, and we can’t wait to help you find the best options for you. Contact us today to learn more about IT, OT, and other facets of the emerging and evolving technological spaces.

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