What is Operational Technology (OT)?

Operational technology includes software and hardware for monitoring and controlling industrial plants or physical machines and their processes. In the past, these were often proprietary solutions operated in isolated environments. Digitization and the Internet of Things are merging traditional IT with operational technology. This fusion is referred to as IT/OT convergence.

What is Operational Technology (OT)?

The abbreviation is OT. Operational technology includes software and hardware for monitoring and controlling industrial plants or physical machines and their processes.

These technologies originally evolved from mechanical controls and control devices. They transformed through technological progress into electronic solutions that were networked and digitized. In the past, the hardware and software were often proprietary solutions that operated in compartmentalized environments.

The OT was separate from an organization’s IT systems and used proprietary protocols, interfaces, and technologies. Digitization, advances in networking technologies, and the Internet of Things (IoT) are increasingly merging operational technology with traditional IT. This merging is referred to as IT/OT convergence. It brings numerous benefits, but also comes with risks and technical challenges.

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IT/OT convergence is an important basis for the networked processes of Industry 4.0 and offers new possibilities such as predictive maintenance or real-time capable process flows. Requirements for OT are high availability, reliability, and security. In critical infrastructures (CRITIS), it is the special responsibility of the operators to protect the operational technologies.

Differentiation of the terms information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT)

IT/OT convergence is leading to an increasing merging of IT and OT. Nevertheless, the two terms can be distinguished from each other. Information technology includes all technologies, systems, and components including hardware and software, computers, servers, storage devices, and networks that are used to process data.

Information technology is the generic term for these systems and processes used to process data. IT is able to map, execute, support, and control the productive or business processes in a company. Operational technology focuses on the monitoring, regulation and control of machines and systems, including their processes and the physical devices involved. The software and hardware is used close to production. OT is thus geared to the operational control of processes and machines.

The convergence of information technology and operational technology

The term IT/OT convergence describes the merging of information technology and operational technology. In the past, proprietary interfaces, protocols, and technologies in closed systems were used for OT.

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Digital control components were networked to the plant and machinery, but used their own bus and communication systems separate from Ethernet and IP-based IT. The Internet of Things and the increasing spread of IP- and Ethernet-based networking technologies in the industrial environment as well are causing clear dividing lines between IT and OT to disappear more and more.

Convergence is creating new opportunities for more efficient control of machines and plants and their processes. IT/OT convergence enables solutions such as remote control of machines or processes via the Internet, direct M2M communication (machine-to-machine communication), or the integration of advanced processes such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), or Big Data.

At the same time, some risks and challenges arise. Moving away from closed, proprietary systems leads to a greater risk of falling victim to cyberattacks. For example, production facilities and critical infrastructure (CRITIS) may become the focus of external or internal attackers.

In the case of critical infrastructure, this can endanger human lives, the environment, or economic prosperity, and lead to instability in public order. Therefore, there are special requirements for KRITIS operators to protect operational technologies from manipulation or unauthorized use.