DIGITAL: Impact on Operational Technology (OT)and Informational Technology (IT) Johan Krebbers May 6, 2024

DIGITAL: Impact on Operational Technology (OT)and Informational Technology (IT)

Understanding Operational Technology (OT) and Information Technology (IT)

Operational Technology (OT) comprises systems that manage and interact with the physical environment, including devices that interact with said environment. OT systems include controlling and monitoring building management systems, physical access systems, and emergency alert systems within a facility. These systems manage susceptible and critical operational functions, making them a crucial aspect of facility management. 

This is to be contrasted with Informational Technology (IT) systems which control more supportive functions in a facility. These systems manage comparatively less sensitive and critical processes, though they still generate valuable data for the organisation. The data collected here may be used to teach an AI Predictive Maintenance engine. 

The Evolution of SCADA Systems in Modern Industry

The supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system is an exemplary control system architecture that has been historically built using proprietary operational technology and sensors. This architecture includes computers, networked data communications, and graphical user interfaces that provide high-level supervision of machines and processes, making it the centrepiece of an operational centre. SCADA is vital for facilities like refineries and oil and gas platforms. Traditionally, SCADA systems were built using Intel processors with MS Windows as the Operating System and proprietary (vendor-specific) application software and interface hardware / software. The standard practice was to have one supplier deliver an end-to-end SCADA solution for an entire facility, with no mixing and matching of different suppliers’ OT systems, as it could compromise the facility’s end-to-end integrity and safety. OT (Operational Technology) takes care of all sensor information created in a plant, initiates appropriate action, and warns (alarms) Operations in case their action is needed. Any SCADA set-up is 100% isolated using firewalls, etc., from the rest of the IT set-up, making sure that bad actors cannot access the heart of the facilities, causing material damage. 

There are movements to make SCADA more Open and Standards-based: For example, at the Open Group for the OPAF developments. Over time, mixing and matching equipment from different suppliers within the same SCADA set-up will become possible. The rationale for making SCADA standards more Industry Standard / open-source-friendly was to improve the system architecture by utilising open standards and protocols to make it more compatible, secure, and stable. This was a significant improvement in the third generation of SCADA systems, which opened up the system architecture and made it more interoperable. Using industry and data standards also provided substantial advantages to modern SCADA systems. By adopting modern platforms, manufacturers can benefit from improved performance, maintenance, and cost-effectiveness while avoiding the limitations of older SCADA systems that can hinder progress towards a more data-driven enterprise. 

Since there was no other option than to connect all sensors to the OT network, any sensors were connected whether business critical or not. Of course, the number of sensors is increasing very fast, and at the same time, the purpose of these sensors is changing from just reactive to a mixture of reactive and predictive behaviour. In the latter case, these sensors will be IT connected since predictive sensors do not need to be time critical, and any signal loss will not immediately cause major issues. 

The prevailing trend indicates that IT-connected sensors are increasingly installed for predictive purposes, offering numerous advantages such as lower costs, higher availability and a more comprehensive range of sensor choices. By opting for IT-based sensors, businesses can reduce costs significantly. IT-based sensors are a more standardised set-up, with sensor costs being just a fraction (24% or less) of those of OT-based sensors with comparable functionalities. Additionally, businesses can choose from a much broader range of sensors with IT, with the LoRaWAN network standard boasting an ecosystem of over 500 companies. Moreover, IT-connected sensors become part of a company’s IoT setup, further enhancing operational efficiency.

The Impact of 5G on OT and IT Integration

Also the rapid adoption of 5G connectivity is bringing about a profound transformation in the world of industrial operations. With its ultra-low latency and high bandwidth, 5G enables a new level of connectivity and convergence between Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) systems and within OT systems. This convergence blurs the traditional boundaries between these two domains, creating new opportunities for innovation, efficiency, and digital transformation. As a result, many industries are looking to leverage the potential of 5G connectivity to enhance their operations and gain a competitive edge in the market.

Here are some examples of how Operational Technology (OT) and Information Technology (IT) sensors are being used:

  • OT: Temperature sensors play a crucial role in maintaining operational efficiency. If the temperature goes beyond the ideal range, it could adversely affect operations.
  • IT: Pressure sensors are used to predict equipment problems, and the data can be used as input for AI Machine Learning. 
  • IT: Drones are used to collect images of damage on platforms. Although the damage may not pose an immediate risk to operational integrity, these images can help predict potential issues.
  • OT: Cameras can spot critical leakages that could jeopardise safety. These images are crucial and cannot be compromised. 

Overall GEN-AI becomes important here as well to help Operations to make the correct decisions based on increasing amounts of data been collected. It will distill conclusions from these vast amounts of data to steer Operations.