Industrial Control Systems (ICS) and Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition (SCADA) networks control our most critical infrastructures. Power generation and distribution, industrial manufacturing, chemical refineries, oil rigs, large communication systems – any plant that relies on automation utilizes some sort of SCADA network.
The convergence of operations technology (OT) with traditional IT practices has been in the making for quite some time. While still in the early stages of adoption, the concept of IT / OT Convergence is finally picking up steam across industries and is impacting organizations in big ways. Historically, operational technology was a static industry. In fact, when many organizations would procure a specific application, it would stay in their environment up to 20 years with little to no change – in essence locking companies into processes that, within short periods of time, were likely obsolete. This created a gap in the features a business was seeing from an IT perspective, as well as the capabilities that operational technologies could provide. The need to reduce this gap has become the catalyst for the shift toward robust OT infrastructures that, in essence, will transform the way we do business across industries. An example is GE’s “Brilliant Factory” as the company’s CEO, Jeff Immelt has coined the next gen manufacturing facility. The company has installed thousands of sensors in its Schenectady, New York, battery plant to take productivity readings of even the most minute details of their manufacturing process.
Another key factor that has impacted the progression of the IT / OT convergence is connectivity. Today, having instant access to information and communications is taken for granted, but just a decade ago less than 10 percent of the world’s population used the Internet. As a result, employees now expect the same level of connectivity they experience in their personal lives in the business environment. For example, Apple, a company well-known for its innovative approach to branding, manufacturing, and product development, has taken supply chain connectivity to the next level with operations technology. Apple CEO, Tim Cook believes that “no one wants to buy spoiled milk,” an idea that has lead to a new, streamlined supply chain process that has significantly reduced the amount of time any product spends on the company’s shelves. Apple also uses similar data for more timely delivery of their products to customers.
The changes that have occurred over that past 10 years have resulted in the demand for advanced technology applications coming from the field, not just the IT department. This demand has created new challenges in how organizations should align policies, procedures, and standards. As more and more organizations adopt OT, it is vital to bridge the gap between IT and OT to standardize processes and procedures that many IT organizations already have in place.
Today, the application of operational technology is all about how to drive efficiency with predictability. While robust OT still does not exist in most organizations, it is a future reality. With advancements in compute virtualization and storage arrays, companies will have the ability to decrease operational costs, including the hardware cost it takes to support OT infrastructure. Now, the products have advanced to the point where operations can secure workloads and manage operational processes from one centralized location. For organizations like GE and Apple, integrating operational processes with big data technologies has meant significant return on investment not only for the organizations themselves, but also for their clients.
As more executives become familiar with the value that OT brings to the table, the more they will demand of their IT department. The idea that IT will drive profits is on the minds of many executives as they are realizing that it will improve efficiencies, productivity, and drive long-term business outcomes. In addition, there are lasting benefits in human capital management. As an organization, the technologies you deploy can serve as a retention tool. In today’s competitive recruitment process, it is not uncommon for both potential candidates and current employees to evaluate a company based on the technologies it deploys.
In conclusion, while the examples referenced are global conglomerates, the truth is that the IT / OT convergence will influence companies of all sizes, across industries, and is becoming more affordable to implement. Companies should demand partners who understand the business, as well as how technology can be applied to solve a true business challenge. With the right IT partners, organizations can streamline and automate data and can collect, transmit, and present the data to make better, more informed business decisions.
Patrick Vardeman | Chief Executive Officer
Thanh Nguyen | Solutions Architect