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What is operational technology (OT)?

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OT, or operational technology, is the practice of using hardware and software to control industrial equipment. OT includes specialized systems used in manufacturing, energy, medicine, building management, and other industries.

OT stands in contrast to IT, or information technology, which deals with data systems. While OT systems are primarily used to interact with the physical world, IT are primarily used to solve business problems. Many aspects of OT and IT are converging as OT systems are more commonly connected to networks, and generate and use increasing volumes of data.

The OT-IT convergence is related to the rise in edge computing. Edge computing involves shifting computing resources toward the physical location of either the user or the source of the data; a common example is data analysis that takes place on a factory floor.

As part of this convergence, software that’s traditionally been the realm of IT teams is now also used in support of OT processes.

More industries are adopting underlying technology platforms that can unify disparate data systems—ones used by both the business side and the operations side. This is a significant change for industrial processes that have traditionally been isolated from other systems.

Under unified systems, businesses have new opportunities to use data to improve efficiency. For example, manufacturing sites can deploy artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) model training for quality control and predictive maintenance. Scalable service platforms mean applications like these can be deployed uniformly across multiple locations.

The nature of OT, with equipment spread out in different locations, means physical security has long been the primary concern. But today, OT devices that might once have worked in isolation are now connected to networks. This connectivity enables benefits such as remote access and automatic system upgrades, but also introduces new cybersecurity concerns.

Security and stability are especially important for OT used in critical infrastructure—everything from water systems to transportation to power plants. These mission critical OT systems should adopt strategies to reduce the risk of malware and cyberattacks.

With modern cloud infrastructure, a defense-in-depth strategy provides security controls across the entire IT and OT stack. This integrated and layered approach means not relying on any one piece of a security strategy to always work.

A concept in modern OT is IIoT, or Industrial Internet of Things. IIoT is a term for connected devices used in manufacturing, energy, and other industrial practices. IIoT is significant for bringing more automation and self-monitoring to industrial machines, helping improve efficiency.

It’s common for IIoT devices to be used for edge computing. For example, in a factory setting, machines that gather data for the purpose of real-time data analytics on site would represent an IIoT use case that supports an edge computing strategy.

The combination of IIoT and edge computing is helping manufacturers solve problems faster by transforming operations, assisting end users in making business decisions, and making plants more productive.

The OT/IT convergence is a component of Industry 4.0, or the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Both terms mean the same thing, and refer to the increase in automation, communication, and self-monitoring in traditional manufacturing and industrial practices.

The concepts that underpin Industry 4.0 include interconnectivity, information transparency, technical assistance to humans, and decentralized decision-making. Automation, AI/ML, machine-to-machine communications, and big data are also closely linked to Industry 4.0.

How does OT relate to hybrid cloud?

Hybrid cloud is an IT architecture that incorporates workload portability, orchestration, and management across multiple environments. This can include OT environments that are integrated with public or private cloud infrastructure.

Hybrid cloud solutions can provide a common foundation for OT and IT. Hybrid environments, with an embrace of open source software and modern software development practices, support flexibility and interoperability across systems.

In an OT environment with hundreds or thousands of pieces of connected equipment, a hybrid cloud model can enable real-time feedback and consistent management across a single control plane.

Hybrid cloud can help organizations introduce DevOps software development methods. Under DevOps, consistent tools and applications allow developers to deliver new capabilities across an entire enterprise at scale.

In practice, this means IT and OT teams can maintain consistent control, visibility, and management of hundreds to thousands of edge nodes in an industrial environment.

The tools you need for edge computing

Red Hat Edge

Red Hat’s portfolio of enterprise software is optimized for lightweight deployment on all kinds of hardware, letting you put the right amount of computing power in the right place—today and tomorrow.