Bringing Alien Worlds Together in the Internet of Things

In the 1990s, I, like millions of others, read the book Women Are from Venus, Men Are from Mars. This best-seller suggested that the frequent misunderstandings between genders make it seem as though men and women are from different, alien worlds. But it’s not just men and women who appear to be from different planets. Today, every organization that has begun an Internet of Things (IoT) deployment is bumping up against a fundamental disconnect between information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT). In many cases, these two groups are alien to one another—with separate technology stacks, network architectures, protocols, standards, governance models, and organizations.

In the first wave of the Internet, data and technology systems fell solidly in the realm of IT. IT systems focused on the flow of data across an organization, and with a few exceptions, did not get involved in production and logistics environments.

However, in many companies, a parallel organization—commonly called operational technology —has grown up to monitor and control devices and processes that act in real time on physical operational systems, such as assembly lines, electricity distribution networks, oil production facilities, and a host of others.

As the Internet of Everything (IoE) multiplies the networked connections among people, process, data, and things, the worlds of IT and OT are starting to converge. And with this convergence comes a culture clash. In a recent Cisco study on IoE in the oil and gas industry, for example, 59 percent of respondents did not believe their firms’ IT and OT strategies were aligned. OT leaders may be confounded when IT schedules a weekend shutdown to update software without regard to production requirements. And IT leaders don’t understand OT’s use of proprietary or specialized systems. IT is deeply concerned with cybersecurity, while OT has traditionally based system security on the physical isolation of its facilities.

Even with this culture clash, over the past decade or so, OT and other line-of-business functions have increasingly adopted IT technologies and moved to open standards, such as Ethernet and IP, and even to cloud services. At the same time, IT has increasingly become a business partner to the line-of-business and OT groups, with a better understanding of business outcomes and operational requirements.

An earlier Cisco study showed that both IT and OT leaders now recognize the need to share responsibility for IoT solutions, although they still may need to negotiate who has decision-making authority at each stage in the adoption process—particularly as they engage with vendors and approve purchases.

IT and OT functions will share increased responsibility for IoT solutions in the future.

Source: Cisco Consulting Services, 2014

We are starting to see this IT-OT partnership in action as information from industrial systems is integrated with enterprise applications. Right here at Cisco, the manufacturing and logistics teams have been working closely with IT for the past decade. Additionally, Cisco and Rockwell Automation have developed joint industrial network certification programs to align worker skills with the requirements of IT-OT convergence, and have collaborated on open solutions to help customers bridge the gap between control and information across the factory floor and throughout the enterprise. These converged solutions have helped customers reduce inventory from 120 days to 82 days, and to improve delivery times by up to 96 percent.

When IT and OT come together, 1 plus 1 can actually equal 3 as IT technologies and standards-based architectures such as Converged Plantwide Ethernet (CPwE) drive lower costs, reduced downtime, and better security. For example, when General Motors implemented a standards-based network architecture at 150 global manufacturing facilities, it reduced downtime by 75 percent, and lowered costs by more than $150 million.

As IT and OT continue to converge, both organizations can take the following steps to maximize benefits and reduce friction:

  • Adopt open standards such as IP, Ethernet, and 802.11 wireless technologies in the production environment, and follow best practices for standards-based architectures such as CPwE
  • Train IT engineers to understand unique OT requirements, and OT engineers to understand IT technologies and best practices
  • Adjust IT processes to meet specific OT requirements
  • Develop integrated networking, data, and security architectures across IT and OT systems

By promoting a strong partnership between IT and OT, organizations and their IoT deployments can enjoy the best of both worlds—solid industrial control systems built on an open, integrated, and secure technology foundation.


Maciej Kranz

Vice President and General Manager

Corporate Strategic Innovation Group