A few decades ago, John Gage of Sun Microsystems famously conceived the idea that “the network is the computer” – which became the company's tagline. Sun may be history, but the idea that computing occurs in a distributed fashion, across a global network of nodes and endpoints, holds even truer today, especially with the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) and edge computing.
As the network evolves into the computer, it has ramifications for the roles of people and systems at the edge, especially as the edge increasingly includes a plethora of corporate, industrial systems and services. That is, information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) are becoming one in the same.
Until now, IT and OT have existed in two separate worlds, serving very distinct purposes. IT consists of computing systems for the processing and storage of data, while OT comprises the hardware and software running and monitoring production systems – such as SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition), DCS (Distributed Control Systems), and ICS (Industrial Control Systems).
As digital technologies and approaches began to advance in recent years, there have been greater expectations that IT and OT would converge onto common ground. The rise of the IoT and Edge Computing is accelerating this convergence. Companies at the forefront of the Industrial IoT have established common ground for IT and OT to function as one converged, and ideally seamless, system.
Examples of converged IT-OT systems include video and computer vision-enabled applications, telematics, tracking systems, health monitors, and many other capabilities now arising with the IoT. The rise of the IoT – bringing together a global network of devices, sensors and systems ranging from the shop floor to the supercomputer data center – has removed the walls that existed between IT and OT.
For businesses, the advantages of IT-OT convergence are compelling. For starters, this confluence delivers the ability to process and analyze Industrial IoT data emanating from a variety of machines, systems and vehicles (that are now endpoints on IT networks alongside PCs, servers and storage arrays). Extending this new environment, converged IT-OT insights can be employed to deliver superior customer or user experiences through personalized, predictive analytics.
The challenge for organizations is to open up communications between IT and OT environments to realize the value of the IoT and Edge Computing. To advance and serve customers in the digital era, converged IT-OT infrastructure will need to connect with the plethora of production-floor machines and systems. The vehicle fleet, mobile tablets, medical monitoring devices – no matter where across the globe they may be – that's where data is being created, consumed and analyzed, often in real time. The ability to apply intelligence at the endpoint enhances productivity. This is the traditional domain of OT, which has evolved into the client side of IT.
The Industrial IoT is bringing IT and OT together with a common purpose, and organizations and their people need to prepare and configure their environments accordingly. From an IT perspective, it means building IT architectures that interact and exchange data with machines, sensors and products that are in use by customers in the field. From an OT perspective, the ability to deliver real-time value and data can translate into new products and services for businesses. The power and connectivity available through IT systems means innovations can be put forth, such as value-added services accompanying physical products.
With converged IT-OT, enterprises are now capable of delivering greater quality and continuous product and service improvements, while proactively anticipating future needs. Every stage in the product or service lifecycle may be digitized, and therefore open to new modes of manufacturing (such as providing continuous updates) or greater personalization.
To achieve convergence, organizations must knock down dated perceptions of IT and OT, and transform the way IT and OT teams work with one another. Mindsets are different – the OT side doesn't necessarily have deep-rooted experience with security or collaboration. OT teams oversee a range of devices, machines and systems that support different standards and protocols. Data generated at the edge also tends to be unstructured, so accommodating it may require a realignment of the IT environment.
Security and compliance are key concerns that also need to be addressed, as the highly distributed nature of IT-OT convergence greatly expands an organization’s potential attack surface. Therefore, the same rigorous security practices seen with IT need to be extended to OT environments. Data or information that was once firmly ensconced within machines and industrial control systems is now flowing across networks and into other systems, and thus more vulnerable to mischief.
This is the era of the new infrastructure – one that extends well beyond the bounds of the data center, beyond the walls of enterprises. Thus, organizations need to upgrade the skills and mindsets of their technology teams. The Industrial IoT is a powerful force bringing IT and OT together, creating an engine of innovation. This will help give rise to new types of products and services that will be well beyond the scope of original manufacturing operations.