Bridging the IT/OT Gap is About Context, Standardization

The era of data-hungry IIoT is making it increasingly important for the IT department and factory floor to share data and insights.

PTC has sponsored this post.

(Image: PTC.)

(Image: PTC.)

In the era of the Industrial Internet of Things, assets on both the information technology (IT) side and the operational technology (OT) side are becoming more sophisticated—and they both generate and use more and more data. As a result, it’s increasingly important for manufacturers to mesh the IT and OT side of their businesses to fully capture the potential contained in all that data.

However, converting the data from these assets into actionable insights can be a significant challenge. IT and OT systems have historically been implemented to address different challenges and have rarely had to work alongside each other. As a result, each has developed different architectures and protocols.

IT/OT convergence breaks down the barriers between these two systems. This enables the assets running on shop floor machines to communicate directly with IT platforms. Potentially, by connecting the systems that control the manufacturing process with the systems that control data storage and processing, a business can unlock insights from both systems to improve their critical operations. Connecting these systems enables companies to make sure their products meet the intended specs, exercise greater control over output and uptime, prevent unplanned downtime and stay on top of their processes.

Integrating operational and information technology requires a software layer in between them to handle and process the data so that the OT and IT teams have a single and consistent source of information to work from. This is where a company that specializes in making that convergence happen can be an invaluable partner in bringing about that integration.

Speaking the Language

“Where we help with that convergence is essentially protocol translation,” said Kyle Carreau, Partner Enablement Engineer for Kepware at PTC.

He describes Kepware as a software solution developed by PTC, designed to facilitate connectivity between various industrial automation devices and applications. It acts as a communication platform enabling data exchange and integration within a diverse range of industries such as manufacturing, oil and gas, utilities and more. Kepware supports numerous protocols and interfaces, allowing it to connect with a wide array of industrial devices, equipment and software systems. A user-friendly interface and plenty of features simplifies the process of collecting, monitoring and controlling data from multiple sources, helping organizations to optimize their operations, improve efficiency and make data-driven decisions. .

“You have your OT-specific protocols such as Modbus/TCP, or Allen Bradley or Rockwell, and you want to convert that data into something that IT is much more familiar with, such as http, MQTT, or SQL databases. Kepware helps these two different types of technologies to talk to one another.”

Kepware does so through an extensive library of drivers ranging from legacy devices to the latest modern equipment to specialized niche machinery. “Any data you need access to, we can use Kepware to help get that data to where it needs to go,” said Carreau. “Our whole value proposition is that we know it’s important for you to capture the data and have it piped somewhere that is reliable, secure and easy to set up… and we just focus solely on exposing industrial data from a large variety of devices, and then move that data to where it needs to go in a secure, reliable and easy-to-setup way. While other software platforms will be able to provide you with insights and analytics, they will not work without reliable data.”

Carreau uses the analogy of making sandwich to describe the value Kepware brings to a manufacturer. “If you’re trying to build a sandwich, you’d go and you’d get all of your ingredients and you’ve got everything here, but you need a way to connect them together,” he explains. “If you’re making peanut butter and jelly, you would use a knife to scoop the peanut butter, spread it, scoop the jelly, spread that. Well, Kepware is the knife there. It’s just a tool: by itself, it isn’t going to do anything, but within the context of this particular job, it’s able to do everything you need.”

Kepware’s software helps open lines of communication and interpretation between technologies that have long histories of different types of protocols. “IT has been traditionally based heavily off of Ethernet and Ethernet/IP—so that’s their world,” said Carreau. “Within the last decade or two, ethernet started making its way to the plant floor. But automation has been around for much longer than that… So, while you may be able to physically connect a cable to a PLC, there is a chance that you won’t see data flowing.”

Philosophical Differences

Enabling communication is only part of the solution, however. “The bigger challenge is the different philosophies of OT and IT,” he said, pointing to the importance of contextualization as a key element.  An example of this is uptime. In the IT world, a loss of communication to systems like email for an hour would not be detrimental to the company. However, in the OT world, loss of communication to a machine for even a few seconds could potentially mean the loss of thousands of dollars, an increase in scrap material, or even a physical safety issue.

Another example would be a Modbus register generating values that an OT engineer can interpret as monitoring the parts count of an operation. An IT engineer, however, wouldn’t have that context and would only see a device churning out numbers. Kepware can help bridge that gap in understanding.

How enterprise connectivity can help manufacturers achieve digital transformation. (Video courtesy of PTC Kepware.)

One of the most important reasons for a company’s IT department to have access to operational technology data is security. Many devices on a factory floor are networked and generate data, and virtual manufacturing is on the rise. The convergence of IT and OT will allow IT engineers to have a more comprehensive view of the manufacturing process. “There’s a lot of IT-related technology that needs to be managed by somebody,” said Carreau. “By having this convergence—and having visibility into all the different types of assets you have—you inherently are able to get more secure.”

While it might be tempting for the IT department to create an in-house solution, these are notoriously unwieldly to implement, update and maintain to keep up with dynamically changing manufacturing processes. Using a product like Kepware resolves those challenges. “It’s very nuanced, and it just becomes a financial burden and a resource burden to have people dedicated to just the communication between assets,” said Carreau. “While it might make sense from a business standpoint to try to vertically integrate all of that, to a certain extent, it just becomes unbearable. Whereas with Kepware it’s literally all we do and that’s all we’ve done for 30 years. It works, you set it and forget it, and then you go on to do what you’re good at.”

Integrating OT and IT data also requires standardization of data across the enterprise. This requires a strategy that goes beyond just pooling all the data a company generates into one place for staff to access.

“Even if you have the smarts to analyze all that data, it still needs to be contextualized, to be standardized in a particular way, otherwise it’s still a mess,” said Carreau. “If you’re truly looking to scale out your operations to get that enterprise view and really get those business insights, you need to level set with everybody and say, hey, this is the language everybody’s using.”

Taking a deliberate and thoughtful approach at the beginning of the process makes it easier to scale up a company’s operations. “We’ve seen that companies who have that mindset at the beginning of their journeys are much more successful than those who lag behind and do it at much later in the process.”

Solving the IT/OT divide is increasingly becoming an important priority for manufacturers, particularly as increasingly complex workarounds become less able to solve their problems. Breaking down the silos between the two models with a solution like Kepware has the potential to accelerate innovation, democratize access to data and technology and enable businesses to make better decisions informed by both IT and OT data. In a data-hungry IIoT world, that could result in a significant competitive advantage to the manufacturer who gets it right.

Learn more at PTC Kepware.