IoT Blog
IoT Blog

What is IT/OT Convergence?

by Remy Marcotorchino, Director of Marketing, Industrial & Infrastructure

If you work in the manufacturing, logistics, energy, building management or another industrial sector, chances are you have heard about the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and how it will change the way you do business – a transformation often described as part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0.

Analysts, journalists and others agree that the convergence of Information Technology (IT) with Operational Technology (OT) is one of the key drivers of this transformation. Yet many people are confused about the IIoT, and how to implement a successful IT/OT convergence strategy. For example, if you are a business or technology leader responsible for your company’s IIoT efforts, you might be asking yourself questions like:

  • What exactly does it mean to converge IT with OT?
  • How does the IIoT enable this convergence?
  • What will IT/OT convergence allow my company to do that it could not do before?
  • How will IT/OT convergence benefit me or my customers?
  • What challenges can I expect to face as I try to converge my IT with my OT?
  • How can I overcome these challenges?

As one of the market leaders in delivering the IIoT solutions that enable Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and other companies to converge IT with OT, Sierra Wireless has some ideas on how to answer these questions.

While not the first (or last) word on the subject, we hope this Q&A will help you understand IT/OT convergence better, and accelerate your journey to implementing an IT/OT convergence strategy that improves business outcomes for both you and your customers.

What is Information Technology (IT)? 

Information Technology (IT) is technology that is primarily used to collect, manipulate, analyze, and generate insights from information (i.e. data).

In the business world, IT (usually consisting of computing, network and data storage technologies) can be something as simple as a standalone spreadsheet program an accountant uses to build a business model on their laptop. Or it can be as complex as a cloud-based Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) application that employees throughout a company use to manage inventory, billing, shipping, and other core business processes. 

What is Operational Technology (OT)? 

Operational technology (OT) is technology that is primarily used to monitor and control physical operations. 

OT, like IT, consists of computing, networking, and storage technologies. But OT uses these technologies for a different purpose -- to process or communicate information related to the management of physical processes. Examples of these processes include how much water a water pump is pumping, how much electricity is being stored in an industrial battery, or how fast a building’s HVAC fans are spinning. 

OT systems can vary greatly in complexity – they can be as simple as a sensor that tracks the location of a shipping container, or as complex as a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system used to monitor and control a utility’s electric grid or a manufacturer’s assembly line. 

What is the difference between IT and OT?

Though the line between IT and OT can at times be blurry, the difference between the two really comes down to how they are used. 

IT is generally focused on the collection and manipulation of information that can be used by companies to manage business processes or generate insights. OT is generally focused on the collection and manipulation of information that can be used by companies to manage machines or other equipment that is engaged in physical processes.

In the past, IT has been associated with offices and white-collar work, while OT has been associated with factories, warehouses, shipping, and other blue-collar work. Yet, increasingly companies want to align these different types of work with each other – which is one of the reasons why companies want to connect their IT systems to their OT systems.

Why has OT remained separate from IT? 

A major reason why OT has remained separate from IT is that they started on different paths. Only in recent years, has more powerful computing, better networking, improved storage and new IoT technologies become available that allow OT and IT systems to easily share data with each other.

IT first originated with mainframe computers, then evolved to include personal computers and file servers. Further advances in computing, data storage, and networking led to the rise of the Internet and the cloud-based ERP, Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Business Intelligence (BI) and the other IT systems that we are familiar with today.

OT started with companies integrating direct digital control technologies into machines and other types of equipment. Over time, OT has used many of the same technological advancements that drove the development of IT to advance, with companies integrating programmable logical controllers into their equipment and deploying robotics. 

Today, companies deploy many different types of OT systems for managing physical processes, including SCADA systems, Computer Numerical Control (CNC) systems and Building Automation Systems (BAS).

Yet, many of these OT systems were not designed to be integrated with IT systems. For example, many of them use communications protocols and standards, like DNP3 or Modbus, not used by IT systems. These integration challenges, along with security concerns, high upfront cost, difficult to calculate ROIs forecasts, IIoT connectivity difficulties and other challenges have helped keep IT and OT systems separate.

What is IT/OT convergence? 

IT/OT convergence connects IT systems to OT systems, allowing them to transmit data to each other. The goal of IT/OT convergence is to use this connectivity to enhance the value these systems deliver. 

For example, being able to collect, manipulate and analyze data from OT systems enables companies to better use their IT systems to streamline business processes and generate insights that can be used to foster innovation, or introduce new services. Meanwhile, with OT systems that can be updated or optimized with data from IT systems, companies can improve how these OT systems manage various physical operations. 

What are some IT/OT convergence use cases?

Many companies converge IT with OT in order to use OT data to enhance IT systems in ways that allow them to improve business operations, or generate valuable insights. Companies also converge IT with OT in order to use IT data to enhance their OT systems, so they can perform physical operations better. 

Examples of popular use cases for IT/OT convergence include:

  • Real-time remote asset tracking, monitoring, and troubleshooting, which allows a company to see where a trailer, tool, machine, or other asset is and when it will arrive at its destination. These applications can also find out what an asset is doing and change or optimize its operations.
  • Predictive and preventive maintenance, which allows a company to collect data that can be used to determine when an asset might need maintenance, and then perform that maintenance (sometimes remotely), helping them avoid equipment downtime. Predictive and preventive maintenance can also help OEMs lower costs by reducing the need for them to send technicians on-site to fix a piece of equipment -- a task that has become even more difficult in the age of COVID-19.
  • Equipment-as-a-service (EaaS), in which OEMs offer their customers “pay-as-you-go” services, so they pay them based on how much they use an asset, rather than purchasing the asset outright.

These examples of IT/OT convergence use cases show how by integrating data from OT systems into IT systems, companies can improve business operators and generate valuable insights.

  • By collecting OT data on how an air compressor is operating, an OEM’s IT system can use data analytics to predict when their air compressor might need maintenance. 
  • An IT system can combine OT data on where a shipping container is located with traffic and weather data to predict when the container will be delivered to a customer.
  • A commercial washing machine OEM can also use OT data to monitor how often a customer uses their equipment, allowing them to offer their customers EaaS offerings where customers pay them based on how much their use their machines. This allows customers to avoid large upfront equipment costs, while providing the commercial washing machine OEM with more predictable long-term revenue streams.

Other IT/OT convergence use cases show how IT systems can deliver data to OT systems that improve physical operations.

  • An IT system can collect energy consumption and other data from an air compressor’s OT system, and then adjust the equipment’s configuration and operation to make it more energy efficient.
  • An IT system can connect to a shipping container’s OT system, and adjust the “rules” for when the OT system sends an alert to the shipper regarding the temperature or other environmental conditions in the container. So when the shipping container contains a pharmaceutical product, seeds, or another type of sensitive asset, the container will alert the shipper if temperature, light, or shock sensors detect conditions that would damage this particular type of asset. 
  • Commercial washing machine OT systems can send IT systems data on their performance. This allows the OEM to monitor their machines’ water levels and temperature as well as the length of their washing, rinsing, and other cycles, to ensure their washing machines are operating at the levels required for thermal disinfection. It can also allow them to detect and fix problems remotely, avoiding truck rolls to the customer site.

As these use cases demonstrate, with IT/OT convergence companies can use their IT systems to streamline processes and generate better insights and their OT systems to operate equipment more efficiently and effectively – resulting in smarter factories, warehouses, energy grids, supply chains and buildings. 

How does Industrial IoT enable the convergence of IT and OT?

IIoT technologies serve as the “bridge” connecting IT to OT (and vice versa).

To successfully implement an IT/OT convergence strategy, you need IIoT infrastructure (consisting primarily of edge devices, wireless networks and cloud APIs). IIoT infrastructure securely orchestrates the collection, transmission, and processing of data between IT and OT systems. It uses edge devices to extract data from industrial equipment and then filter, prioritize, and otherwise process this data, wireless networks to send this data to the cloud, and then cloud APIs to integrate this data into cloud-based IT systems. IIoT infrastructure makes sure the right data gets sent to the right system, at the right time, with the right priority.

You also need an IIoT application (consisting of a distributed IIoT application, built on a cloud IoT platform but running on both edge devices and in the cloud) that works with IIoT infrastructure to tell the IT and OT systems exactly how, when, and in what way you want to collect, transmit, and process their data. 

To see what we mean, let’s look at an example of IT/OT convergence, greatly simplified for clarity. 

An air compressor company wants to offer a new pay-as-you-go EaaS offering to its customers. 

  • First it connects a module, router, gateway or other type of edge device to its air compressor’s OT system, so it can extract data on how much customers are using these compressors.
  • It connects these edge devices to a wireless network (5G, 4G, LPWA or Wi-Fi, for example) so that this OT data can be transmitted to the cloud.
  • It then uses a cloud API to integrate this OT data into its cloud-based ERP IT system.
  • On top of all this, IIoT infrastructure runs the IIoT application itself – with software based in the both the cloud and in the edge device. This IIoT application determines what data to collect from the equipment, when to transmit it, and how to process it (at the edge or in the cloud).

What are some of the benefits of IT/OT convergence?

Though many companies are still at the beginning stage of using the IIoT to implement an IT/OT convergence strategy, many benefits of IT/OT convergence are already becoming clear.

Less Downtime and Lower Maintenance Costs: 

  • With IT/OT convergence, OEMs can build IIoT applications that collect equipment OT data and then analyze it with their IT systems to determine when this equipment will need maintenance. They can even use these predictive maintenance IIoT applications to remotely do this maintenance work. Remote maintenance not only lowers equipment downtime (improving customer satisfaction), but allows OEMs to reduce expensive truck rolls by their employees to customer sites to maintain or fix equipment – truck rolls that can be difficult, if not impossible, to complete if the asset is located in a remote location, or during the COVID-19 or another pandemic.

New Services and Revenue Streams:

  • As mentioned above with IT/OT convergence, OEMs can transition from selling equipment to customers to pay-as-you-go services with new EaaS offerings. IT/OT convergence allows these OEMs to track how much and often their equipment is being used by their customers, enabling them to move from a CapEx business model, where customers buy their equipment, to an OpEx business model, where customers pay to use their equipment on an ongoing basis. This business models benefits customers since they can avoid high up-front equipment costs, and easily scale up or down their use of the OEM’s equipment. At the same time, it enables OEMs to create new, more predictable, long-term service-based revenue streams.

Improved Innovation: 

  • By collecting OT data on how their customers are actually using equipment on a day to day basis, and then analyzing this data with their IT systems, IT/OT convergence allows OEMs to generate insights on what kinds of innovations would deliver the most value to their customers.  

Streamline, Automate, and Optimize Business and Physical Processes: 

  • IT/OT convergence also provides companies with opportunities to streamline, automate, and optimize both business and physical processes. For example, by collecting location data from an edge device connected to a truck delivering a customer’s shipment, and then integrating this data with their ERP or CRM system, they can send a real-time alert to their customer that their shipment has been delivered. Alternatively, by collecting OT system data on an air compressor’s energy use, an IT system can optimize the air compressor’s operations so that it uses energy more efficiently.

What challenges do companies experience with IT/OT convergence? 

While IT/OT convergence benefits can be significant, many companies have struggled to use IIoT technologies to connect their OT systems to their IT systems. Some of the challenges they have faced include:

  • Equipment Data Collection Problems: Using edge devices to collect data from equipment OT systems has often been challenging for companies because this equipment uses different communications protocols than those used by the edge devices.
  • Connectivity Complications: Many companies find it difficult to both connect edge devices to wireless networks and manage these wireless connections in a way that minimizes their edge devices’ energy use and their data transmission costs.
  • Cloud Integration Issues: APIs are needed to integrate OT data into cloud-based IT systems, and developing or sourcing these cloud APIs can be problematic.
  • Security Struggles: Companies want to prevent malicious actors from stealing, locking or destroying their OT and IT data, but implementing an IT/OT convergence security strategy that protects IIoT data from the point where it is generated by an OT system to the point where it is ingested by an IT system is often quite difficult.
  • Application Scaling and Updating Difficulties: Many companies have struggled to scale proof of concept or local IIoT application to new assets or geographies, or have had issues updating their IIoT applications as their business needs change.

While these challenges vary, one commonality unites them – the complexity involved building the IIoT infrastructure required for IT/OT convergence. Building and maintaining the IIoT infrastructure needed to securely connect IT systems to OT systems requires a wide variety of specialized expertise in a range of complex subjects, including embedded device firmware, wireless connectivity, IT/OT convergence security, and cloud application development, among others.

Acquiring all this expertise, and then using it to build from the ground up the IIoT infrastructure needed for IT/OT convergence is not a simple task – which is one of the key reasons that, in a recent survey of IoT adopters conducted by Beecham Research, 58 percent of the respondents stated that their IoT project was either mostly unsuccessful or not successful

What recent IIoT innovations can help OEMs alleviate these IT/OT convergence challenges?

Fortunately, new IIoT innovations can help address the challenges mentioned above by simplifying the complexity involved in IT/OT convergence. In particular, new all-in-one, edge-to-cloud IIoT solutions provide OEMs with all (or most) of the IIoT infrastructure they need to reliably and securely connect their IT systems to their OT systems. 

For example, Sierra Wireless’s Octave solution securely integrates edge devices, wireless networks, and cloud APIs into a single solution for converging IT systems with OT systems. Octave addresses many of the complexity challenges described above by delivering customers:

  • Automation protocols that can extract, process, and filter data from a wide variety of different industrial equipment OT systems and then transmit this data to IT systems in the cloud. This makes it much easier to integrate modules, gateways and other edge devices into OT systems.
  • Ready-to-Connect devices with Smart Connectivity services that connect edge devices to cellular networks as soon as they are powered on. This, combined with the fact that this Smart Connectivity service includes connectivity from over 600 mobile network operators in more than 160 countries, greatly simplifies edge device connectivity.
  • Built-in cloud APIs that allow OEMs to integrate OT system data into IT systems deployed in practically any cloud service, including Microsoft Azure, AWS, and many others.
  • IIoT security orchestration technologies that strengthen IT/OT convergence security by continuously upgrading edge device firmware and rotating security keys, while constantly monitoring the network for new threats.

Octave also enables OEMs to easily clone one device’s attributes to other devices at a massive scale, and configure, update, and manage all of their edge devices’ rules, making it easier to scale and update IIoT applications over time.

In addition to the emergence of all-in-one IIoT infrastructure solutions like Octave, Microsoft, AWS, and other cloud service providers, they now offer new cloud platforms designed for the IoT. For example, Microsoft’s Azure IoT Central provides OEMs with a fully managed global IoT SaaS (software as a service) solution that they can use to quickly build and easily manage IIoT applications that converge OT systems with IT systems.

IIoT infrastructure and application innovations like these are helping to “cloudify” the IIoT, allowing OEMs to essentially plug their OT systems into their IT systems rather than build their own solutions for this convergence themselves.

Where can I learn more about IT/OT convergence?

There are a wide variety of research firm reports and media articles that can provide you with more background on IT/OT convergence and guidance on how to develop a successful IT/OT convergence strategy, including:

In addition, you can read some of our eBooks, articles, reports and white papers or view our webinars and videos on how to use the IIoT to implement an IT/OT convergence strategy that accelerates a data-driven transformation of your business:

eBooks, Reports and White Papers:

Webinars and Videos:

And, of course, you can Start with Sierra, and contact us directly to discuss how we can help you use the IIoT to converge your IT with OT in ways that empower you to create value in today’s connected economy.