Our definition excludes purely mechanical systems as the term is no longer used in context to those systems. When mentioning Operational Technology, people commonly refer to actuators and sensors communicating with digital systems, and the digital systems interacting (via sensors and actuators) with the physical industrial environment.
Certain systems that are considered to be purely IT could actually be classified as OT, depending on their use. Examples of these systems are pc’s, servers and network infrastructure which take part in the path of direct interaction with the physical world. It might already become clear that the edge between OT and IT is more like a gray area, resulting in quite interesting discussions about demarcation.
Some examples for clarification
The term Operational Technology is mostly used within industrial enterprises, although not limited to them. Some application examples of Operational Technology:
- Surveillance systems
- Conveyer and transport systems
- Computer Numerical Control (CNC) Machines
- Scientific equipment (Like a digital microscope)
- Quality monitoring
Examples of components which are considered to be Operational Technology:
- Operational historian
- Manufacturing Execution System (MES)
- Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)
- Industrial Control Systems (ICS)
- Programmable Logic Controller (PLC)
- Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA)
- Variable Frequency drives (VFD)
- Remote Terminal Unit (RTU)
- Human Machine Interface (HMI)
- Distributed Control System (DCS)
- Typical Protocols
- Distributed Network Protocol 3 (DNP3)
- Open Platform Communication (OPC)
All examples above display the wide scope of systems classified as Operational Technology. Not only manufacturing lines, automated warehouses and the Airport have an OT environment, also building automation and some laboratory equipment is considered to be OT.
For what Operational Technology is optimized?
Operational Technology is built and optimized for different things than IT.
OT is meant to keep a machine or factory running with minimal planned or unplanned downtime. This means that OT systems are designed for minimal failure, low maintenance and a long lifetime. The long lifetime possibly exceeds 30 years, which is extra impressive when considering the dirty, vibrating, temperature fluctuating conditions in which OT could be applied.
Failure of an OT system could have major consequences for both human and machine. Imagine a bridge collapsing because of a failure in the brake control system or a power plant running out of control because a sensor in a feedback loop stopped working. Because of this, OT is built for safety and reliability reducing the chance of dangerous failure to an absolute minimum.
As Operation Technological systems likely interact with fast processes, low and stable latency is essential. Fluctuating or high latency in control chains could introduce all kinds of unwanted behavior like oscillations or overshoots in the process. Because of this, Operation Technological systems are optimized for low and stable latency around and below the millisecond range.
Operational Technology is optimized for flexibility to allow for changes in the operational process and meet the specific requirements of a site. This flexibility does come at a cost, lowering the level of standardization across the OT field.
Operation Technological Challenges
Maintainability over time
OT systems tend to stay operational until far past their serviceable lifetime due to their high availability, long life and cost of replacement. Maintenance and repair becomes harder over time as fewer people possess the knowledge of the legacy systems while spare parts need to be bought from second-hand markets or specialized dealers. This drives cost up and reduces reliability.
Well balanced OT management does leverage the strong properties of OT systems, without suffering from unwanted side-effects.
Safety and (Cyber) Security
Recent generations of OT systems have reached such high levels of safety that vendors started to implement traditionally hardwired safety functions into digital OT controllers and software. Think about drive-by-wire or emergency stop buttons in factories running via digital controllers instead of a hardwired circuit. This new approach does bring safety improvement although could be undesirable from a Cyber Security perspective.
OT systems were not designed for Cyber Security as there was no strong need because of their traditionally air-gapped implementation. As future trends lead to interconnected environments, the threat of cyber-crime incidents in the OT environment does become more realistic. The right type of specialist is required to address this risk correctly at implementation level.
Change in Operational systems
Changes in OT systems could be made easily as they were optimized for flexibility. This flexibility does pose its own challenges. As we have seen in many OT environments:
- Changes of temporary nature became permanent
- Changes were not documented and insufficiently tested
- Essential safety or monitoring systems were accidentally bypassed
- Different source versions for the same system circulate withing the technical department
- Changes were made without compliance with applicable standards and law
These examples pose not only a direct risk to business continuity and systems maintainability, but pose an even bigger risk to safety and security.
Many companies do not have tools in place to detect unauthorized or incorrect changes in their OT environment. OT management is essential to regain control of the OT environment, not only to control changes but also to truly align the OT environment with business goals.
Many businesses choose a strategic future path towards Industry 4.0 as the immense value of data and connectivity becomes more evident. As a result, the process of integration between OT IT and cloud environments will speed up, even further reducing the already blurry borders between them.
Machine Learning (ML) and eventually Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be applied to the OT environment, enabled by the IT and cloud environment. This will boost levels of automation to entirely new heights, reducing the need for manual intervention or even human decision making. We believe that AI is going to be the biggest disruptive innovation for the coming 50 years. This is why our services help customers to prepare and leverage this innovation, instead of being washed away by them!
The fast development of batteries, low energy consuming electronics, and wireless communication will change the way with which we can dynamically and cost-effectively apply machines and sensors. Provided with a cloud connection, mobile low energy systems could even become AI-enabled.
Historic and real-time data from the OT environment will be used to issue repair before breakdown through Predictive Maintenance. Mobile machines will “come home” and stationary machines will call for services just before failure or costly damage occurs. Predictive Maintenance will dramatically improve the quality of maintenance against a lower cost and higher up-time.
All this connectivity and mobility demands greater levels of standardization and Cyber Security integration within OT devices and the environment. OT is likely to adopt IT standards to improve connectivity to IT and cloud environments, as also new standards need to be created to overcome specific demands. Some of the major vendors did already start to improve connectivity to devices from other vendors, while others embrace “open platforms”.
Operational Technology is a very exciting technological field that thrives at interfacing with the physical world, resulting in automation, safety and control. OT has unique strengths but also weaknesses that have to be managed. The future of OT is bright and we are delighted to see a path of integration with IT and Cloud, enabling each environment to excel in itself while empowering the whole.
The future of OT is full of great value, opportunity and interesting challenges. This is why AIVHY loves OT.