What is Operational Technology? – An Opening Post

Since this is the very first post of this blog, I thought I would address the question of what Operational Technology (OT) is, since OT is at the core of what Syntonous is about.  Gartner defines OT as: 

…hardware and software that detects or causes a change, through the direct monitoring and/or control of industrial equipment, assets, processes and events.” 

That’s a pretty good definition. Most folks think of OT as being related to critical infrastructure or manufacturing.  The actuators, sensors, and other interfaces between computing and physical infrastructure can be recognized as OT in most cases.

What varies are the extents to which the observer applies the OT label.  Some would say the OT label applies only the hardware closest to the process.  This would include, for example, the protective relaying device in a substation or the Programable Logic Controller (PLC) on the manufacturing floor.  In this view of OT, any use of traditional servers and databases is merely tight integration with IT and an example of IT/OT convergence.  Here, the Technology component is not necessarily “high tech” or digitized, it’s simply an advanced automated process.

In other circles, OT is not limited to the immediate vicinity of the industrial environment.  In this case, OT encompasses centralized back-office systems that coordinate the process(es) in the field.  Even though large portions of this form of OT may be running on IT infrastructure, that IT equipment is transformed into OT simply by virtue of being connected to the industrial process.  In an extreme case, back office OT might not even have connectivity to the devices in the field.  That information may be manually entered into an operator workstation.  In the example below, is OT limited to the magenta boxes, or is it the whole picture?  That depends on the organization and the experiences of the people involved. Neither answer is wrong – to a certain degree, OT is in the eye of the beholder.

Simple OT System

At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what portions of the system my department or your company considers to be OT as long as we both recognize that organizations may have different definitions.  Those differences need to be hashed out before incorrect assumptions are made about where the boundaries lie.

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