Industrial Internet of Things Primer: Bridge the Gap Between OT and IT

To realize the promise of the Internet of Things, operational technology systems and information technology systems must converge, allowing connection and communication.

By Matt Newton, Opto 22

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You’ve probably heard about the Internet of Things (IoT), or the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), also called Industry 4.0, primarily in Europe. But what is it?

The IoT is poised to offer society the greatest opportunity for advancement since the Industrial Revolution: a world where all kinds of things are connected, communicating, and improving our standard of living. We’re all going to be a part of it, and preparing for it now will let us take full advantage of its benefits.

According to Berg Insight, a dedicated machine-to-machine/IoT market research firm based in Sweden, the installed base of wireless IoT devices in industrial automation reached 10.3 million in 2014. Berg Insight predicts that the number of wireless IoT devices in automation networks will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 27.2 percent to reach 43.5 million by 2020. Industry giants like GE, Rockwell, Cisco, IBM, and Microsoft are investing significant amounts of capital in IoT. If you’re not already seeing elements of the IoT in your work, you soon will.

A massive change is coming in the way we conduct business, from the design and manufacturing of goods to how we service customers. The IoT intends to connect industrial and manufacturing devices and systems (things or assets) together so we can:

  • Share valuable data in real time
  • Improve processes
  • Tune systems autonomously
  • Predict system failures before they occur
  • Decrease downtime 
  • Reduce costs 
  • Increase profit

All while improving customer experiences and providing customers with more value.

Components of IoT

Just in the last few years, new technologies from low-cost sensors to advanced analysis of massive amounts of data (“big data”) have become more widespread and easily accessible. The costs of computing power and bandwidth continue to fall, ushering in mobility like we’ve never seen before.

With new technologies rising and the cost of technology dropping as quickly as it has over the past several decades, you now have the ability to connect almost anything to a network. You can enable low-level sensors and actuators, collect data from those devices, convert it into a routable protocol, send it across the Internet, and push it into a bigdata analytics system—all in near real time.

You have visibility into your process control systems from across the globe. And that visibility is with you all the time, on your mobile device in seconds, no matter where you are.

With the IoT, information flows freely from customer interaction points, to business decision makers, to resource planners, right to the manufacturing floor, and back again.

How do we get there?

While this movement toward the IoT has already started taking place and grows at an exponential rate every year, it will not happen overnight. Even with the large investments in IoT being made by so many industry giants, there are significant hurdles that need to be overcome for the benefits of the IoT to be captured.

And we won’t be able to capture those benefits without major changes in the way technologies interact in our business.

OT/IT convergence

Within a given enterprise are operational technology systems and information technology systems. Both technologies and each set of systems were purpose-built, and neither was designed to work with the other. Gartner defines operational technology (OT) as “hardware and software that detects or causes a change through the direct monitoring and/or control of physical devices, processes and events in the enterprise.” That’s the industrial control and manufacturing automation part of the business.

Gartner defines information technology (IT) as “the entire spectrum of technologies for information processing, including software, hardware, communications technologies and related services.” That’s the company computer network and databases. (In general IT does not include embedded technologies that do not generate data for the enterprise.)

To make things easier, you might sum up those definitions like this:

  • OT is the assets a business uses to create goods or services for sale.
  • IT is the systems used to manage the production, sale and support of those goods and services.

So both OT and IT function within the enterprise to create output (goods and services). To create output most efficiently, they need to work together.

But in today’s enterprise, there’s a significant communication gap between OT and IT technologies. Each uses its own methods of connectivity, from the physical connectors and buses that data rides on, to the language each uses to convert bits and bytes into human readable and actionable information. Designed years ago, OT and IT technologies remain far apart today.

During a recent keynote address at Smart Industry 2015, Richard Soley, executive director of the Industrial Internet Consortium, pointed out that ladder diagrams for PLCs used in discrete manufacturing in 1980 are very much like the ones used today. “Thirty-five years later we still program these things with ladder, and worse, though it’s got an Internet port on it now, it doesn’t connect to the IT infrastructure of the plant.”  Why not?


For decades, industrial products have been dessigned for long life. As a result of this long lifecycle, industrial devices installed today use varied physical communication layers, mostly proprietary to their industry.For example, you may have a variable frequency drive on a serial network, a proportional valve on Fieldbus, and a proximity sensor on DeviceNet, each a different physical network.

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