February 28, 2023
Mind the gap: How to bridge between IT and OT and gain a competitive advantage
Properly integrating OT and IT means the difference between an uneasy truce and a flourishing hub of innovation.
For many industrial-minded companies, the no man’s land between OT and IT has been the Achilles heel of proper innovation. But as technology continues building out on the edge, it’s becoming imperative that both sides lay down their arms and close the IT/OT gap to fully enable Industry 4.0. While brokering an armistice is easier said than done, companies that find the solution will also gain a valuable advantage over competitors.
Related: Solving data integration challenges with an Edge platform. Watch now!
Why exactly is it so difficult to close the IT/OT gap? One of the biggest reasons is the siloed approach to developing operational technologies. In 1968, IT and OT reached an evolutionary branch point—when a singular species evolves into two distinct lineages. The cause? An MIT dropout.
This man — Dick Morley — created an electronic alternative to mechanical relay automation systems, and to accomplish this, he first developed small, embedded computers to control machines. If this sounds familiar, you shouldn’t be surprised: Morley had just invented the PLC.
This invention set off a chain reaction in the OT world — it created the operational technologies of today. His PLCs, as well as the Ladder Logic used to program them, are still the main way of controlling machines sans assistance from any other systems or applications.
This has left IT on the wayside of the factory floor. Morley didn’t consider this segregation a bug, but rather a feature. He prohibited his team from using the word “computer” to describe PLCs, even going so far as threatening to throw away his ideas if they became tied to the C-word. This stark division continues today, with most PLC programmers coming from a mechanical engineering background over computer science or other IT fields.
The Evolution of IIoT Connectivity — and IT/OT Integration
While Morley’s split of OT and IT has continued throughout the years, the status quo needs to change to match the evolution in technology. Consider all our smart tech — smart houses, appliances, cars, the list goes on and on. With prices of worldwide network bandwidth dropping to a fraction of a cent per Gbps (it was $800 per Mbps in 1999!), more modern and miniaturized connectivity technologies, powerful CPUs, and long-life batteries, most anything and everything can be connected. This includes critical industrial technologies like sensors, actuators, conveyor belts, industrial smart cameras, and, of course, machines.
What was once an island of digital data cultivated solely to control machines is now a vast archipelago of information with ever-increasing use cases. Maybe your factory data now feeds a cloud-based machine learning system. Or it gives you real-time productivity information to help inference machines predict supply chain impacts. It may even allow artificial intelligence algorithms to predict when machines are likely to break, opening the door to predictive maintenance routines.
To reach these outcomes, however, companies must be able to collect and process data for both IT and OT. While this may have been unrealistic a decade ago, modern technology has (once again) come to the rescue. The cloud-based VMs of today are accessible from anywhere and can be integrated with other processes with minimum latency. Data can be transported anywhere while simultaneously using it in real-time to adjust your production line.
Getting data from the production line back out to the greater data stream, however, can be a more difficult task. This is the true test of closing the IT/OT gap. To address this challenge, companies need to invest in edge computing.
How Edge Computing Closes the IT/OT Gap with True Convergence
At its core, edge computing decentralizes data near the end user or the devices producing that data. This goes against the tenets of cloud computing, where everything is centralized via virtual datacenters. Ultimately, the best method is an amalgamation of both, as some processes simply work better on either the edge or the cloud.
For IIoT, this means using edge computing with the operational systems controlling the factory floor — but pushing data to the more traditional IT applications running in a datacenter or the cloud. To do this, companies need applications that run on isolated, dedicated computers — we call these “gateways” — that connect to the factory machines. These IoT gateways allow for the speedy, safe collection of data without interfering with the automation control process.
Edge technology is evolving to create a robust, integrated Industry 4.0 system. Applications can support automation protocols, such as OPC UA, Modbus, or BAC-Net, and the hardware for single-board computers used to run edge computing applications is becoming increasingly affordable. Furthermore, these developments are often used as add-ons to control systems, which allows them to be non-disruptive and non-intrusive to mission-critical OT work. In addition, lightweight protocols like MQTT are making it easier to convert hard data points into more malleable JSON documents. The end result? More OT/IT collaboration than ever before.
Modern factories need this bridge to keep OT and IT evolving through the digital age. In a world of constant technological innovation, it will soon become the only feasible way to stay competitive. And, in the words of the immortal Dick Morley, “The only way to create wealth is with innovation. This essential truth must be transmitted to the next generation of doers in the application of automation technologies.”
Evaldo de Oliveira, Director of Business Development at FairCom