Nov 23 2020

What to Know About IT-OT Convergence for Smart Cities

The convergence of IT and operational technology in smart cities allows for faster insights and predictive maintenance.

As smart cities grow more sophisticated and extensive, they are serving as a test bed for the convergence of traditional information technology and operational technology. OT is the less exciting software and sensors that make a smart city actually smart, controlling streetlights to dim at a certain time and dynamically changing digital signage.

The convergence of IT and OT in smart cities and other contexts is not a new phenomenon, but it is becoming more important as IT and OT unite and city leaders think through how to secure OT in smart cities.

IT-OT convergence connects IT systems to OT systems, allowing them to transmit data between each other, as a Sierra Wireless blog post notes. The convergence gives IT managers and smart city leaders the opportunity to enhance the value of these systems. In the smart city context, there are multiple benefits and use cases for IT-OT convergence. However, it’s important to understand how IT-OT convergence works.

3 Types of IT-OT Convergence

According to an SAS blog post, there are three main types of IT-OT convergence for local government leaders to be aware of.

One is process convergence, in which IT and OT personnel work together. As TechTarget reports, this involves the convergence of workflows. “IT and OT departments need to reform their processes to accommodate each other and make sure important projects are communicated,” the site notes. “This is an organizational convergence, dealing with the structure of the internal business.”

The second mode of IT-OT convergence involves software and data convergence. In this type of convergence, the connected “things” in a city — whether sensors, equipment or physical objects that are a part of the Internet of Things — and their associated data and analytics “commingle with enterprise data and application stacks,” the SAS blog states. TechTarget adds that this involves “getting software and data in the front office to work to address OT needs. This is a technical convergence, dealing with the network architecture of the business.”

The third type of IT-OT convergence involves physical convergence, in which IT systems and OT systems (such as industrial control systems) are physically integrated in a single system chassis or appliance, according to SAS. TechTarget adds that this also involves “physical devices being converged or retrofitted with newer hardware to accommodate the addition of IT to traditional OT. This is an operational convergence, where the hardware itself is updated and maintained over time.”

EXPLORE: How can smart grid technology be protected?

When IT and Operational Convergence Happens in Cities

There are several ways in which IT-OT convergence can play out in a smart city environment. Here are a few key use cases:

  • Transportation: One constant in the transportation sector is that there are always assets on the move. As Sierra Wireless notes in its blog, IT-OT convergence can help in “real-time remote asset tracking, monitoring, and troubleshooting,” which allows organizations to see where assets are and when they arrive at destinations. “These applications can also find out what an asset is doing and change or optimize its operations,” Sierra notes. IT and OT systems can also benefit transportation organizations in cities by providing more of a real-time view of how those systems are being used. “By integrating IT and OT applications, rail organizations can have greater visibility not only into the age of assets, but their condition, as well as type and intensity of use,” an ABB blog post notes. “Therefore, they have more up-to-date information to guide long-term asset replacement planning.”
  • Utilities: As the Utilities Technology Council, a global association focused on the intersection of telecommunications and utility infrastructure, notes in a brief on the topic, IT-OT convergence has played out in utility telecommunications, where migration of industrial control systems “from legacy technologies such as SONET (synchronous optical networking) to IP-based networks requires the ICS expertise of the OT department and the IP expertise of the IT department.” Another example is smart metering, in which physical meters themselves are “part of the electricity distribution network, but the meter data management and back office functions are classic IT applications.” IT-OT convergence also affects utility cybersecurity, the UTC notes, “as more intelligent devices are placed into ICS networks, requiring operational expertise from OT combined with cybersecurity expertise from IT.”
  • Law Enforcement: IT-OT convergence can enable greater agility for law enforcement and public safety agencies. For example, connected sensors in infrastructure (such as gunshot detection sensors) or in surveillance camera feeds can transmit data easily to law enforcement. Personnel in operations centers or out in the field can then use that data to respond to incidents. “Incorporating IT capabilities such as big data analytics and machine learning into OT systems, along with faster connectivity solutions in order to quickly and more effectively respond to security and safety events, has allowed these industries to improve productivity and efficiency, offering a competitive edge to those organizations able to combine these systems effectively,” says Rick Peters, CISO for operational technology for North America at Fortinetin a CSO post.

Benefits of IT-OT Convergence

Cities and other government agencies stand to benefit in numerous ways through IT-OT convergence. One is via simplified process control. By having IT and OT personnel work together and having systems communicate, organizations can “streamline, automate, and optimize both business and physical processes,” Sierra Wireless notes.

A transportation provider in a city can collect location data from an edge device connected to a bus or train and can send a real-time alert to a resident about whether that bus or train is running on time. Or, a utility can collect OT system data on a piece of equipment and send that data to an IT system, which can then optimize its operations so it uses energy more efficiently.

IT-OT convergence enables real-time visibility of equipment. Convergence lets workers “do jobs more efficiently and improves decision-making, as they have access to real-time insights that the data provides,” TechTarget notes, adding that IT-OT convergence offers “improved automation and visibility into distributed OT, because OT gains the ability to transmit real-time maintenance data.”

Additionally, IT-OT convergence helps eliminate unplanned downtime. Cities and their technology vendor partners can “collect equipment OT data and then analyze it with their IT systems to determine when this equipment will need maintenance,” Sierra Wireless notes.

“They can even use these predictive maintenance [Industrial IoT] applications to remotely do this maintenance work,” Sierra adds in the blog. “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.”

LEARN MORE: What are the main security vulnerabilities in a smart city?

IT-OT Convergence and the Security Gap

IT-OT convergence has many benefits for municipalities, but IT leaders and their OT counterparts always need to keep cybersecurity in mind as convergence evolves.

As Sierra Wireless notes, organizations “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 [industrial IoT] 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.”

Most OT staff working through IT-OT convergence requirements “realize that they’ve inherited many problems as digital transformation exponentially expands their attack surface,” Peters writes in IndustryWeek.

“They now have to address a broader array of adversarial driven interests like extortion, industrial espionage, the loss of intellectual property and even industrial sabotage — all issues that were historically addressed through air gapping, requiring a very competent and organized cyberattack to accomplish anything significant against the OT environment,” he notes.

IT and OT organizations need to focus on an integrated security strategy to cover network security, “raise shields against detected threats,” perform security analysis in parallel with the business, enabling “critical operations so that systems remain scalable and available,” and “dynamically segment and microsegment devices and processes to isolate” threats.

IT-OT convergence has clear benefits for smart cities, but IT leaders need to ensure that their IT and OT systems are secure.

structuresxx/Getty Images