IT vs OT: reduce overheads & downtime with OT to IT convergence

Author : Matt Lundberg | Technical Lead | Impulse Embedded

01 June 2021

Impulse Embedded_IT vs OT_reduce overheads & downtime with OT to IT convergence
Impulse Embedded_IT vs OT_reduce overheads & downtime with OT to IT convergence

The convergence of IT (information technology) into OT (operational technology) machinery opens the door to a world of transparency & risk mitigation not normally available in the industrial space – and reducing downtime, overheads & operational issues are just some of the benefits to making the transition into an IIoT (industrial IoT) integrated OT installation.

The full version of this article was originally featured in the June 2021 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. And sign up to receive your own copy each month.

Here, Matt Lundberg, Technical Lead for Industrial IoT at industrial computing, embedded & IIoT solutions provider, Impulse Embedded outlines what defines OT, how it differs from IT and the benefits of convergence between the two…

The term OT, or operational technology, defines physical machinery located in industrial workspaces. From simple lathes to production line robots assembling car engines, from log saws to CNC machines cutting brackets for industrial shelving units, physical machinery has been the mainstay of industry for hundreds of years. We can look back centuries, to steam-powered ploughs and sewing looms in the fabric factories of Manchester, all of which were designed to reduce load on humans and increase productivity.

Machines in the more modern OT space comprise things such as valves, pressure tanks, motors and PLCs, all moving or degradable parts which require some level of maintenance to prevent failures.

With physicality, comes the requirement for safety. With moving parts in large machinery, for instance, failures can not only be costly in repairs and downtime, but could also potentially result in injury to machine operators and factory workers. Should a valve become defective, or a sensor monitoring that valve, the consequences can be, and often have been, disastrous.

Longevity is also a big factor in operational technology installations. Factory owners look for reliability and stability, as frequent obsolescence or short lifespans of physical machinery can lead to costly upgrades, replacements and issues with downtime caused by difficulties in component sourcing when critical systems fail. Replacing components, or even more so, complete machines, is costly, not only in the purchase of physical assets, but also in labour and downtime. The longer a machine can operate at its optimum level, the lower the cost of ownership.

Although hardware dominates the OT space, software is still very prevalent in more modern machinery, but comes with many limitations. Many machines, particularly those from the last decade or two, still require some form of processing to allow them to operate. For instance, robots on the production line require a PLC, or control device, to tell it how to operate — turn, rotate, pick up, connect — all these commands require some computing power to process and deliver to the machine in a particular order. Traditionally, vendors create and distribute their own proprietary software and protocols, which not only lock hardware owners to one vendor, but can also be very costly, as further software is often needed just to program the PLC. There are ways to combat the limits of vendor-specific protocols, such as Moxa’s protocol conversion tools, which convert vendor protocols into the more universal Modus protocol, but again, more expense is incurred and the result is generally isolated to a single machine.

How does IT differ  from OT?
If you ask someone what OT stands for, very few could answer. On the other hand, IT is far more prevalent in today’s world. Information technology, or IT, is all about data, through collection, analysis and reporting, and the protection of that data and where and how it is distributed. With OT, data comes from individual machines, but in the IT space there are many more users involved in creating, entering and maintaining the data; meaning access, data monitoring and security are all aspects far more critical in IT, when compared to the OT environment.

If we look back 15 or so years, much (or most) data generated by OT machinery was limited either to the machine itself, or at best, to the LAN it was connected to, whereas IT communication technology has been distributing information around the world for decades of course, via the internet.

Perhaps the most important distinction between IT and OT can be explained in hardware versus software. In the OT space, hardware is king, with countless devices, robots and machines produced to do individual tasks. OT software, however, is very limited in its scope, normally able to run a small number of necessary functions required to operate the machinery. IT is the exact opposite: hardware is far more generic, yet software is far more comprehensive. For instance, industrial computers, as long as they are technically adequate, can run a multitude of applications. Communications devices are relatively simple from a hardware perspective, but vary hugely in their software capabilities. The task orientation for OT is hardware, and for IT, it is software...

Read the full article in EPDT's June 2021 digital issue...

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