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Bridging the IT/OT Gap

It’s all about context and standardization

Published: Monday, August 28, 2023 - 11:02

In the era of the industrial internet of things (IIoT), assets of both information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) are becoming more sophisticated—and they both generate and use more data. As a result, it’s increasingly important for manufacturers to mesh the IT and OT sides of their business to fully capture the potential contained in all that information.

However, converting data from these assets into actionable insights can be a significant challenge. IT and OT systems have historically been implemented to address different challenges and have rarely had to work alongside each other. As a result, each has developed different architectures and protocols.

IT/OT convergence breaks down the barriers between these two systems. This enables the assets running on shop-floor machines to communicate directly with IT platforms. Potentially, by connecting the systems that control the manufacturing process with those that control data storage and processing, a business can unlock insights from both systems to improve its critical operations. Connecting these systems enables companies to make sure their products meet intended specs, exercise greater control over output and uptime, prevent unplanned downtime, and stay on top of their processes.

Integrating operational and information technology requires a software layer between them to handle and process data so the OT and IT teams have a single and consistent source of information to work from. This is where a company that specializes in making that convergence happen can be an invaluable partner in bringing about that integration.

Speaking the language

“Where we help with that convergence is essentially protocol translation,” says Kyle Carreau, a partner enablement engineer for Kepware at the software company PTC.

He describes Kepware as a software solution designed to facilitate connectivity between various industrial automation devices and applications. It acts as a communication platform, enabling data exchange and integration within a diverse range of industries such as manufacturing, oil and gas, utilities, and more. Kepware supports numerous protocols and interfaces, which allows it to connect with a wide array of industrial devices, equipment, and software systems. A user-friendly interface and plenty of features simplify the process of collecting, monitoring, and controlling data from multiple sources. This helps organizations to optimize their operations, improve efficiency, and make data-driven decisions.

“You have your OT-specific protocols such as Modbus/TCP, or Allen Bradley, or Rockwell, and you want to convert that data into something that IT is much more familiar with, such as http, MQTT, or SQL databases,” says Carreau. “Kepware helps these two different types of technologies talk to one another.”

Kepware does so through an extensive library of drivers ranging from legacy devices to the latest modern equipment to specialized niche machinery. “Any data you need access to, we can use Kepware to help get that data to where they need to go,” says Carreau. “Our whole value proposition is that we know it’s important for you to capture the data and have it piped somewhere that is reliable, secure, and easy to set up. We focus solely on exposing industrial data from a large variety of devices, and then move those data to where they need to go in a secure, reliable, and easy-to-set-up way. While other software platforms will be able to provide you with insights and analytics, they will not work without reliable data.”

Carreau uses the analogy of making a sandwich to describe the value Kepware brings to a manufacturer. “If you’re trying to build a sandwich, you’d get all of your ingredients, but you need a way to connect them,” he explains. “If you’re making peanut butter and jelly, you’d use a knife to scoop the peanut butter, spread it, scoop the jelly, spread that. Well, Kepware is the knife there. It’s just a tool: By itself, it isn’t going to do anything, but within the context of this particular job, it’s able to do everything you need.”

Kepware’s software helps open lines of communication and interpretation between technologies that have long histories of different types of protocols. “IT has been traditionally based heavily off of Ethernet and Ethernet/IP, so that’s their world,” says Carreau. “Within the last decade or two, Ethernet started making its way to the plant floor. But automation has been around for much longer than that.... So, while you may be able to physically connect a cable to a PLC, there’s a chance that you won’t see data flowing.”

Philosophical differences

But enabling communication is only part of the solution. “The bigger challenge is the different philosophies of OT and IT,” says Carreau, pointing to the importance of contextualization as a key element. An example of this is uptime. In the IT world, a loss of communication to systems like email for an hour would not be detrimental to the company. However, in the OT world, loss of communication to a machine for even a few seconds could potentially mean the loss of thousands of dollars, an increase in scrap material, or even a physical safety issue.

Another example would be a Modbus register generating values that an OT engineer can interpret as monitoring the parts count of an operation. An IT engineer wouldn’t have that context and would only see a device churning out numbers. Kepware can help bridge that gap in understanding.

One of the most important reasons for a company’s IT department to have access to operational technology data is security. Many devices on a factory floor are networked and generate data, and virtual manufacturing is on the rise. The convergence of IT and OT will allow IT engineers to have a more comprehensive view of the manufacturing process. “There’s a lot of IT-related technology that needs to be managed by somebody,” says Carreau. “By having this convergence—and having visibility into all the different types of assets you have—you inherently are able to get more secure.”

While it might be tempting for the IT department to create an in-house solution, these are notoriously unwieldly to implement, update, and maintain in a dynamically changing manufacturing processes. Using a product like Kepware resolves those challenges. “Convergence is very nuanced, and it just becomes a financial burden and a resource burden to have people dedicated to just the communication between assets,” says Carreau. “While it might make sense from a business standpoint to try to vertically integrate all of that, to a certain extent it just becomes unbearable. Whereas with Kepware, it’s literally all we do, and that’s all we’ve done for 30 years. It works, you set it and forget it, and then you go on to do what you’re good at.”

Integrating OT and IT data also requires standardization of data across the enterprise. This requires a strategy that goes beyond just pooling all the data a company generates into one place for staff to access.

“Even if you have the smarts to analyze all those data, it still needs to be contextualized, to be standardized in a particular way. Otherwise, it’s still a mess,” says Carreau. “If you’re truly looking to scale out your operations to get that enterprise view and really get those business insights, you need to level with everybody and say, ‘Hey, this is the language everybody’s using.’”

Taking a deliberate and thoughtful approach at the beginning of the process makes it easier to scale up a company’s operations. “We’ve seen that companies that have that mindset at the beginning of their journeys are much more successful than those that lag behind and do it much later in the process,” Carreau says.

Solving the IT/OT divide is becoming an important priority for manufacturers, particularly as increasingly complex workarounds become less able to solve organizational problems. Breaking down the silos between the two models with a solution like Kepware has the potential to accelerate innovation, democratize access to data and technology, and enable businesses to make better decisions informed by both IT and OT data. In a data-hungry IIoT world, that could result in a significant competitive advantage to the manufacturer who gets it right.

Learn more at PTC Kepware.

Published July 13, 2023, by engineering.com.


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