Operational Technology refers to hardware and software that interact with the physical environment used to control, automate and monitor physical devices and processes, in industrial & scientific equipment.
What is OT?
Where would we be without traffic lights, massproduced food, electricity, gas and car fuel on demand? Operational Technology (OT) makes all these possible and available to us, automating the monitoring and controlling of processes and equipment that are too dangerous, too demanding or too monotonous for manual operation.
OT refers to hardware and software that interact with the physical environment used to control, automate and monitor physical devices and processes, in industrial and scientific equipment, as an example. Operational technology is all around us: in manufacturing, transportation, oil & gas, healthcare, agriculture and more. OT and IT have a symbiotic relationship; operational technology controls equipment, information technology (IT), controls data.
Protecting Operational Technology
Whilst cybersecurity for IT is focused on safeguarding information confidentiality, integrity and availability, OT prioritises safety, reliability and availability, as OT failure can result in serious physical danger. As previously isolated devices are now connected to the Internet, the OT network is exposed to the threat landscape. As the adage goes, with great power comes great responsibility.
Wind turbines, hospital diagnostic and monitoring systems, transportation control systems, automated teller machines (ATMs), civil infrastructure (e.g. tollway automation and water management) are common examples of Operational Technology that can be intercepted and compromised.
Cyber-attacks on OT can result in very real emergencies; collapsed power grids and poisoned water systems, once the province of disaster movies are now plausible scenarios in the real world. OT employs many technologies across different sectors; for example, Artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT), 3D printing and virtual reality (VR) are increasingly part of manufacturing practices.
Scoping the risk for Operational Technology
Though OT is often overshadowed by IT, it is just as important. Since many companies are still not giving OT the attention it deserves, increasing disruptions to OT systems have become commonplace.
OT systems control physical processes on factory floors, traffic lights, industrial robotics, MRI machines, radiology equipment, ATMs, power plants, and other industrial settings. They’re essential for keeping operations running smoothly and safely.
The risks and effects of poorly protected operational technology have been evident as security and privacy breaches are increasing. These attacks have led to data corruption, financial losses, disruption of services, and more.
Major problems in OT security can lead not just to financial harm but to supply-chain risks, infrastructure damage, denial of service, misconfigurations, cyberattacks, and loss of life.
Imagine the problems a cardiac patient might suffer if the sensor-mapping technology currently used by top surgeons became compromised. Technology such as SentiAR provides surgeons with a real-time, three-dimensional interface for cardiac ablation procedures that reconstruct an accurate representation of a patient’s heart, feeding that data into the hospital’s platform. It goes without saying how important it is to get such platforms right.
Innovation: trends currently disrupting OT
Though hacks, vulnerabilities, and neglect of OT are relatively common, the leading contenders for disruptive technology trends today offer invaluable lessons. Here is a brief look at the top three that stand out.
Just as the Internet of Things (IoT) revolutionized modern homes, giving us the Google Home controller to voice-enable lights or alarms, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is currently revamping manufacturing, distribution, and sales industries. Sensors help track and optimize every process.
As artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning evolve, smart factories channel these new computing powers to become more efficient. Thanks to an interconnected network of computers, sensors, and machines, tasks such as quality control and predictive maintenance are fully integrated.
Never before was the value of Digital Twins so apparent as now, as they help avert and restore supply-chain disruptions. Digital twins are virtual models of physical objects made possible by 3D modeling. This handy engineering feat allows companies to test and validate a product long before it is created in the real world. This can help identify process failures in planned production before it goes to market.
How does the tech channel contribute to securing the OT infrastructure?
Given the complexity of integrating the IT and OT worlds, the tech channel plays a critical role in providing holistic solutions to help manufacturing companies, as a key vertical relevant to OT, to realise the business benefits provided by the digital transformation of OT. This will require investment in skills development, as well as potential new practices that will have to be set up in order to safely guide customers on this journey.
The move towards OT being able to leverage IP allows for an unprecedented amount of data to be collected and backhauled via WLAN and private 5G networks (1). Over the course of the next few years, businesses will need guidance on the best practices between the integration of WLAN and 5G.
One critical success criterion of deploying AI/ML is the need to have skilled consultants and a retrained workforce who can speak the ‘languages’ of both the IT and OT worlds (2). VARs and SIs have a huge opportunity to build an OT AI/ML-focused managed service or outsourcing practice which can work for both businesses and vendors.
Lastly, the management, insights, and storage of data in the convergence of IT and OT requires cybersecurity best practices all the way from the machine to the cloud, and at every step in between.
Cybersecurity channel companies who lead in Zero-Trust and SASE can play a key role in ensuring the secure design and deployment of digital transformation projects in the IT/OT space. The adoption of these techniques and solutions have been accelerated by the exponential increase in advanced, persistent threats in IoT and OT devices (3), and therefore, previous field experience in this regard is a highly valuable competency.