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The worlds of information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) are colliding. In July 2019, Automation.com cited a survey finding where 82% of respondents told Forrester and Nozomi Networks that their organizations were in the early stages of an IT-OT convergence. Some said their organizations were embracing this meeting more fully.

This finding begs several questions. Why are IT and OT converging? And is this culmination a seamless transition, or are organizations experiencing challenges along the way?

This blog post aims to find out by first identifying the differences between IT and OT. It will then provide insight into IT-OT convergence and discuss challenges that this junction is creating. It will then discuss how containers can solve some of those challenges.

IT and OT: Understanding the Differences

IT and OT are not the same. According to Webopedia, IT covers all aspects of managing and processing information. It usually applies to businesses and large organizations instead of homes and personal computing devices. As such, it covers technologies such as servers, databases, web applications and business phones.

This is a bit different than OT, which consists of technologies that help to manage and monitor physical devices, processes and operations. OT is especially relevant for organizations that have industrial environments. Those types of organizations could use OT to keep industrial assets like factory equipment, critical infrastructure systems and HVAC fans running, notes i-SCOOP.

For years, technologies in IT and OT have remained apart. Sierra Wireless attributed this separation to the fact that many OT systems’ designs did not traditionally allow for easy integration with IT systems. Those OT assets used communications and protocols that IT systems couldn’t understand, for instance. Some OT systems were also air-gapped from other parts of the organization’s network in the attempt to protect the availability of industrial assets. This made integration with IT next to impossible.

The IT-OT Convergence

But things are changing. Not just in one way, either. TechTarget noted that the IT-OT convergence is actually occurring in three related areas:

  1. Process convergence: IT and OT teams are adjusting their workflows so that they can communicate with one another during important projects.
  2. Software and data convergence: IT and OT personnel are collaborating in an effort to make the former’s software and data useful to the latter for fulfilling their work duties.
  3. Physical convergence: Physical devices are receiving new hardware to accommodate the addition of IT to traditional OT assets.

Together, these three phases have culminated in the phenomenon of organizations deploying wireless sensors and other connected systems into industrial environments. Many of these new devices fall into the growing category of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). Indeed, PR Newswire reported that the global IIoT market size was expected to grow from $65,452.15 million in 2018 to $118,413.63 million by 2025. This growth reflects increased interest in facilitating machine-to-machine communications between OT assets using the Internet, specifically cloud-based systems. It also highlights the need for technologies that are capable of contextualizing OT data so as to monitor industrial processes in real time.

Such a convergence enables organizations to maintain more direct control and execute more complete monitoring of their OT assets from anywhere in the world. Such improved visibility makes it easier for workers to be more efficient, for teams to share expertise and for stakeholders to make more informed decisions. It also helps organizations to save time and money when it comes to maintaining IIoT devices and complying with relevant industry standards.

All that said, the IT-OT convergence does come with its fair share of challenges. One of the biggest obstacles is updating the organization in such a way that facilitates process convergence. Organizations could struggle to deploy their existing IIoT devices in a way that optimizes IT-OT collaboration and that works for both teams. They could be tempted to replace their products with other solutions and thereby miss out on one of the core benefits of the IT-OT convergence: doing more with what technology is available.

Containers as the Future of IIoT

Fortunately, organizations can use containers to help address the challenges discussed above. Containers are pieces of technology that contain an entire runtime environment including dependencies. This property enables organizations to run applications on systems regardless of the underlying host infrastructure including across different cloud and OS environments, notes Kubernetes on its website.

Such minimal hardware requirements enable containers to accommodate the minimal computing resources of most IoT devices, per Container Journal. More broadly, they can also support organizations with IoT environments that are geographically dispersed and that are inconsistent in their needs for access to the network. These characteristics make containers integral to the task of pushing intelligence about OT environments to the edge, according to insight.tech.

An issue arises when organizations deploy so many containers that it becomes difficult to manage them manually, however. At that point, organizations need to turn to a container orchestration and automation platform such as Kubernetes. This type of solution can streamline the process of managing containers and using security policies to protect containers.

For more information on how Kubernetes can help your organization manage its containers and thereby maximize the efficiency of its industrial IoT devices, click here.