OT and IT — finally on speaking terms!
Like feuding arms of the same family that can’t remember what it was that divided them all those years ago, OT and IT are finally talking and they’re wondering why they didn’t do it sooner. This is great news for asset-intensive and infrastructure focused enterprises, because getting OT and IT on the same page is critical for embracing Industry 4.0 and ensuring the success of their businesses.
As always, the original source of the disconnect is complicated. Typically, asset-intensive industries did not really catch the digital wave in the same way that other knowledge-based (finance, high tech) or internet (e-commerce, entertainment) industries did. Sure, they used the office LAN to email each other and share documents on the intranet. But, the actual business of generating power, mining ore or stamping out widgets didn’t radically change because of digital technologies.
Information technology, or IT, played a strategic role in the first-generation digital companies. But in the latter, asset-intensive industries, IT was mostly managing the office LAN and trying to keep the photocopiers running. In contrast, operational technology, or OT, was responsible for choosing technologies, from power substations and ore trucks, to metal fabrication and chemical processing. This was real-world, material stuff that was a long way from bits and bytes.
OT would, of course, say that they’ve been using digital technologies for years. Which is true, just not in the same way that IT has. For OT, digital technologies were specialized to make specific machines or industrial processes run better, more efficiently, smarter. Whereas for IT, digital technologies were general purpose, standardized platforms that provided information services, allowing businesses to do things electronically that had never been done before, been done with paper, or else changed the way people communicated.
Industry 4.0, or what some refer to as the fourth industrial revolution, is changing all that for OT. The key elements of the new paradigm are artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning (ML), the internet of things (IoT) and high-bandwidth, low latency private wireless networking (LTE and 5G). These technologies combine to radically change the way fourth-generation industries will operate, allowing them to harness networked information services in ways that make collaborating with IT crucial.
IoT is important because, whether video, audio, radar, or a vast array of environmental sensors, it translates purely physical processes into digital information. Fed into databases and analyzed by AI/ML, this information can digitally model these physical processes and optimize them to an extent that is simply not possible with purely analog functions. LTE/5G wireless can then connect all sensors, machinery and workers to the local cloud where entire industrial processes, not just individual functions, can be modeled and optimized.
This doesn’t just make industrial processes more efficient; it makes it possible to do things we couldn’t do before. For instance, power utilities are rapidly embracing distributed micro generation and storage, such as rooftop solar and whole house batteries. The problem with intermittent renewable power sources, however, is that they can cause rapid fluctuations in the grid. Distributed energy resource management systems or DERMS manage these fluctuations using a combination of sensors, AI/ML and private wireless networks to coordinate the entire system, not just to make it more efficient, but to make it workable at all.
In order to reap the ultimate rewards of this digital transformation, enterprises will have to take a systematic and holistic approach to digital. This is where IT has a strategic role to play. Getting all of this digital stuff to work together — “interoperability” — is critical. All of this information has to flow through IT-managed networks and the IT-managed cloud. Databases have to have common data structures across the business. Industry 4.0 systems have to tie into business and operations systems such as ERPs and inventory systems. This “system-wide” approach usually goes beyond the scope of OT.
The good news, from my perspective, meeting with various enterprises across a number of industry verticals, is that IT is being invited to the table. Admittedly, given Nokia’s business, which is selling private wireless networks, IT should be involved, but it hasn’t always been the case. Nonetheless, I’m seeing a real shift over the last few years. OT teams are beginning to see the value that their IT colleagues are bringing to party. Now that they are on speaking terms again, exciting things are sure to follow.
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