Operational Technology – everything you need to know

Aug 15, 2022 | Cyber Risk

The core role of operational technology is the use of hardware and software to monitor, control and manage industrial operations, including the equipment and the processes they use. 

The term Operational technology (OT) is commonly used in equipment-intensive industries such as manufacturing, utilities (oil, gas, electricity, and water) in both generation or distribution, mining, transportation (aviation, rail, traffic light management), and even telecommunications.


Operational Technology (OT) vs Information Technology (IT)

Many people confuse Operational Technology (OT) with Information Technology (IT). However, these two are different. The focus of OT is industrial operations and how they can be optimized to achieve the best possible performance. On the other hand, IT is concerned with the business and enterprise systems that store, process and deliver data and digital assets.

OT existed since the Industrial Revolution, while IT came into existence much more recently, as a result of the computer revolution. However, OT has benefited from the many advancements that have been happening in IT in the past decades.  


OT Evolution

Before the computing era, devices and equipment used in manufacturing, health, oil and gas, as well as mining, were mainly mechanical. Each device/equipment would work independently. Physical controls were used to manage how the machine operates based on the task at hand. 

In the past 30 years, the internet has greatly impacted how OT networks are controlled and monitored. Today, OT devices are interconnected, controlled, and monitored remotely. Software is also being used to further optimize the performance and efficiency of OT.

More recently, artificial intelligence and machine learning have enabled real-time analysis of data from physical devices to facilitate autonomy, preventive maintenance, and improved reliability. This has further elevated the capabilities of OT systems. 


Examples of OT Systems 

When we talk about OT, people often think about the factory floor. However, OT covers a wide range of systems in various industries. Any computerized, special-purpose piece of equipment can be considered an OT system. Here are some common examples:

  • Traffic light systems
  • ATMs 
  • MRI machines in hospitals
  • All robotic equipment in factories and other workplace environments
  • SCADA (Supervisory control and data acquisition) systems
  • Automated cleaning machines

OT systems are now everywhere, including work offices, factories, and at home. Because they’re all computerized, these systems are often confused with IT equipment. 


Challenges with OT

  • Cybersecurity risks: with OT systems often connected to a network, they inherit all the problems computers face, and these include cyberattacks. So, the equipment used in factories or ATMs can be hacked or attacked by cyber criminals. Such dangers simply did not exist when OT equipment was exclusively operated manually. 
  • Outdated operating systems: Most OT devices are designed to last decades. Many of these tools have outdated operating systems that no longer receive security and feature updates. Such equipment is very vulnerable to cyberattacks.


Why does OT need to be secured?

Operational devices are now heavily computerized and face the same cyber risks as computers. Any severe cyberattack could lead to a standstill in the operations that rely on the devices that have been compromised. 

These attacks could also alter the way the attacked device works, which creates other fatal problems for the device itself and the people operating it. So, administrators need to prioritize the security of OT systems just like IT systems. 


How to secure OT systems

Multi-level authorized access

Users of OT systems should be given access depending on the role they play. For example, a machine operator should only be given access to the equipment they use to do their job. More sensitive tasks such as updating the equipment’s operating system or changing any crucial settings should require authorization by their supervisor. 

Software vulnerability analysis 

Organizations need to hire or outsource cybersecurity experts to help them identify any security vulnerabilities in their equipment’s software. These experts should also suggest solutions to how the vulnerabilities can be patched. 

Network segmentation

There should be clear boundaries between the various networks of the different OT systems, and also the general enterprise IT network. This makes the isolation of compromised systems much easier in case of an attack. So, the operations of the entire organization won’t be shut down when one of your pieces of equipment is compromised.  

Backup management

The data on your different systems should be backed up on secure local or cloud servers. In case any of the systems fails or is compromised by hackers, these backups can be used to restore the equipment to its operational state. 


Final thoughts

OT often plays a crucial part in business operations no matter the size of the company. Traditionally, reliability and effectiveness have been top of mind for OT systems, but it’s time for cybersecurity to be made a top priority by all users and owners of these systems. 

 

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