The Internet of Things, the cloud and artificial intelligence are commonly referenced industrial digital transformation technologies. Thanks to these groundbreaking advances, managerial priorities like preventive maintenance, production optimization, defective rates reduction, energy savings and carbon reduction are being achieved. Supporting these technologies, however, requires a secure foundation that continuously deliver reliable operational (OT) data.
Evolving OT networks
In the beginning, most machines on factory floors were stand-alone operations, with OT data being used to monitor and control the operation of specific equipment. Most data was confined to a single device and only transmitted through basic serial-based communication structures. As the need for automated systems arose, factories connected a variety of machines to communicate with each other and two key trends emerged:
- the amount of transmitted data increase tremendously.
- Communication moved from serial-based to integrated regional Ethernet.
Industry 4.0 Era, a.k.a. the industrial digital transformation era, made it possible for customers to optimize the operation of machines and move beyond merely monitoring them. One outcome is OT data’s new status as a building block of digital transformation. To achieve the required levels of optimization, OT data must be transmitted to IT systems or to the cloud for further analysis. In other words, the days of confining OT data to the devices that generate it are over. This realization has set into motion the transformations listed below:
From Intranet to the Internet
To allow OT data to flow smoothly between OT and IT networks or to the cloud, the silos that once served as a protection within internal networks can no longer exist. Also, as OT systems increasingly get connected to the Internet, the focus needs to shift from securing the physical fields to securing OT data, namely data security and OT network security. Just controlling inherent physical security risks, such as limiting physical access to the OT fields or prohibiting the use of personal USBs and laptops on-site, is no longer enough. For instance, when connecting trackside PLCs to a central control center, it is important to ensure that up-to-date anti-viral software protects the PLCs. Without such protection, PLCs can pose a serious security risk to a system’s internal network. Therefore, cybersecurity needs to be a major focal point during deployment.
From segregated to integrated
As we require devices to become more interactive than reactive, subsystems that once worked independently must now work together. This systematic shift means the industrial networking technologies built in different eras will have to integrate with each other and form a new network. Subsequently, these developments create new management challenges that only a comprehensive visualization of the network can resolve. For instance, as a Moxa client in the intelligent transportation system industry recently found out, their system became too complex to navigate once the entire network was linked. So, instead of saving on labor as projected, an additional 67% of their workforce was needed just to identify a disconnected link in the vast network, highlighting the need for industrial network management.
Eroding OT and IT separation
For more detailed analysis, additional data–such as equipment status, images and video feeds–is now required from OT networks, not just the standard control data it used to transmit. To illustrate, consider the mining industry., Remote intelligent operation systems are used to identify risks to miners before they head into a dangerous area. These systems collect real-time information, such as live footage of the deployed automatic mining machines and the underground mining conditions, as well as live data including air quality and toxic gas extractions. If both OT and IT data run on the same network, it could crowd the bandwidth. Such data traffic jams delay the delivery of crucial control data elsewhere in the system, resulting in interruptions in the production and possible dangers to employees. Hence, ensuring an ever-evolving intelligent system while maintaining firm control on the deployed devices is critical.
In most instances, only the data shown on monitoring systems and terminal equipment is managed, while data generated by communication equipment between monitoring systems and field devices is often overlooked. This could have catastrophic consequences if a disconnection occurs. Therefore, effectively elevating one’s OT network management capabilities is not just convenient but critical.