As new technologies bring hardware online, the difference between Operational Technology (OP) and Information Technology (IT) becomes fuzzy.

So, what is the difference?

In a nutshell, OT deals with machines, while IT deals with information.

Let’s look at these technologies a bit more closely.

What is an operational technology network?

The Gartner Glossary defines operation technology (OT) as follows:

“Operational technology (OT) is hardware and software that detects or causes a change, through the direct monitoring and control of industrial equipment, assets, processes, and events.”1

Operational technology (OT) denotes technology that monitors and controls specific devices and processes within an industrial setting. It uses a combination of software and hardware designed to perform real-time operations (e.g., control temperature, monitor mechanical performance, set off emergency shut offs, etc.). One example of OT is SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition), used in water control, waste control, telecommunications, and oil and gas refining.

Operational Technology Network

Another example of OT is PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers). A PLC works like this:

  1. Receives data from input devices or sensors, then
  2. Processes the information, then
  3. Performs a specified task, or
  4. Outputs information according to pre-programmed parameters.

PLCs are usually used to monitor machine productivity, track operating temperatures, trigger alarms, and start and stop processes.

OT devices may not be updated for months or even years. They are typically highly specialized and cannot run on standard operating systems such as Windows or iOS. They usually require custom software to function.

What are Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices?

IIoT devices are the smallest components of OT. They are various sensors, monitors, actuators, and other technologies positioned on or near OT equipment such as generators, pipelines, fans, PLCs, industrial robots, etc.

What is an information technology network?

Most people seem to have a good understanding of Information Technology (IT). TechTarget defines IT as follows:

“Information technology (IT) is the use of any computers, storage, networking, and other physical devices, infrastructure, and processes to create, process, store, secure, and exchange all forms of electronic data. Typically, IT is used in the context of enterprise operations as opposed to personal or entertainment technologies. The commercial use of IT encompasses both computer technology and telephony.”2

IT encompasses hardware (like computers, physical servers, network equipment), software (operating systems, applications), and any surrounding equipment. IT is not limited to a fixed set of tasks, rather IT can be re-programmed in various ways to keep up with evolving applications, changing business requirements, and user needs.

IT networks manage information. This form of technology is the mainstay of most organizations and companies; it is less common in industrial settings.

Information Technology Network

What are the fundamental differences between operational technology and information technology?

As stated above, an OT network is employed in industrial settings to process an organization’s operational data. An IT network is used in any industry to manage computer systems and data securely. Here is a list of comparisons:

  1. OT interacts with machines. IT deals with information.
  2. OT deals with monitoring, control, and supervisory data. IT deals with transactional, voice, video, and big data.
  3. OT is connected to the outside world, with no access limitations. IT access is limited to people who have privileges.
  4. OT processes data in real-time. IT works on the transactional processing of data.
  5. OT may have information risk issues. IT may have automation issues.
  6. OT network failure can result in injury or death. With an IT failure, data is lost.
  7. OT has a relatively static environment, as requirements do not change often. The IT environment changes frequently.
  8. OT networks upgrade only during specific operational maintenance periods. IT networks require frequent upgrades.
  9. OT systems have a life cycle of 15 to 20 years. The life cycle of an IT system is 3 to 5 years.
  10. OT systems require custom-developed software. IT systems can run on standard operating systems.

What is IT/OT convergence?

TechTarget defines IT/OT convergence as follows:

“IT/OT convergence is the integration of information technology (IT) systems with operational technology (OT) systems. IT systems are used for data-centric computing; OT systems monitor events, processes, and devices, and make adjustments in enterprise and industrial operations.”3

Traditionally, a manufacturing company had an IT department that dealt with data flow and an OT department that managed the factory floor—and there was little reason for the two departments to interface. This scenario has changed dramatically.

With the emergence of the Industrial Internet of Things, connected industrial equipment is becoming the new norm. The IIoT is pushing these once separate departments to link up. And there is less distance than ever before between the systems that control manufacturing processes and those that control data storage, communications, and computing.

OT is increasingly able to communicate from machine-to-machine and with centralized servers as well. This communication is achieved in several ways, including:

  • Native functionality
  • Gateways and protocol converters
  • Integration with traditional IT systems
  • The multitude of devices and sensors that facilitate connectivity
  • The adoption of the cloud

OT/IT Convergence

What are the benefits of OT/IT convergence?

Simply put, OT/IT convergence helps employees do their jobs. It makes them more efficient and facilitates better decision making. The IIoT generates vast quantities of data collected from sensors and software that give companies a strong foundation to improve business decisions, processes, and productivity.

Following is a list of some of the many benefits of OT/IT convergence:

  • Both OT and IT departments must share expertise and information.
  • Predictive maintenance IoT-enabled devices reduce development time and costs.
  • Converged technology gets the product to the market faster.
  • Convergence supplies more visibility and information, which improves regulatory compliance.
  • OT acquires the ability to transmit real-time maintenance data, which improves automation.
  • Energy and resource usage is more efficient.
  • Asset management is more efficient.

Final Words

At first, OT/IT convergence might seem a bit daunting. However, if benefits like collaborative decision-making, and lower-cost, streamlined processes are important, convergence is the first step.

As Tulip Interfaces, Inc. states:

“Indeed, many of the most exciting advances of Industry 4.0 are possible precisely because the systems that execute manufacturing functions are more integrated than ever with the information infrastructure.”4

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1 TechTarget: Information Technology (IT)
2 Gartner Glossary: Operational Technology (OT)
3 TechTarget: IT/OT Convergence
4 Tulip: IT/OT Convergence—Tips for Gaining Visibility in Your Connected Factory