Democrats vs. Republicans? “Child’s Play!”

IT vs OT

If you’re not a partisan Democrat or a partisan Republican, you probably roll eyes when you hear about the shenanigans in Washington, your state capital, or even your local city administration. Too many of our elected officials are more concerned with their prestige, their power, their wealth, their own re-election, and defeating the other party than they are about doing great work for their citizenry.

But I take up pen and paper today (actually, keyboard and monitor) to not speak of politics, the two major US parties, or any particular elected officials; I write today to speak of something more serious, the real divide in this country: IT (Information Technology) vs. OT (Operational Technology). Many in these groups not only speak ill of the other but do their best to gain advantage, power, and control of company resources. There are more than a few at manufacturers like GM, Proctor, and Gamble, or Pfizer that don’t think of companies like Toyota, Kimberly Clark, or Merck as the enemy that they must strive to overcome. Instead, they work to vanquish the real enemy: their own IT department.

Pitched battles are fought over everything from Ethernet switch selection to IP address schemes and VLAN tagging standards. These battles extend to the location of network drops, cabling standards, and responsibility for managed switch configurations. Like political parties, skirmishes happen as one side takes a position just because the other side took an opposing position.

It wasn’t always this way. Back before Ethernet in the form of EtherNet/IP, PROFINET IO and Modbus TCP hit the factory floor, the two organizations hardly know the other existed. IT took care of the office, IC (Industrial Controls, now called OT) managed the factory floor, and there was hardly any interaction. Once Ethernet was introduced, however, battles were quickly joined over how to address Ethernet devices on the factory floor and why OT couldn’t use standard IT technology like DNS (Device Name Servers).

Neither group understands much about the other’s business. IT doesn’t often understand the critical nature of factory floor processes. At 2 am may be a perfect time to do a network scan of office computers, but it’s not the perfect time to send a flood of messages into a running manufacturing network, swamping OT switches. OT doesn’t often appreciate the critical nature of IT’s responsibilities. If malware infests the company’s systems, if there is a ransomware attack, if there is a significant outage in the business systems, they are going to be assailed for failing in their responsibilities to the corporation. An old warrior of these battles, Gary Workman of GM, said about this divide: “The users have the ultimate responsibility for ensuring a control network meets their needs – but historically, control system engineers don’t know how to design an Ethernet network and IT personnel don’t know how to design a control system network.”

The enmity between the two groups stems from many differences in philosophies. One common example of the culture gap is how each organization views switches. IT manages an Ethernet network as a communication utility where switches are a part of the utility but the end devices (your desktop computer) is a consumer of the utility. Their primary goal is to keep the utility operational. Keeping the end devices operational is important but a secondary objective. Manufacturing, OT, manages a control system as an entity where the switches, programmable controllers, and end devices are all equal components of the control system.  You can’t select a switch vendor without considering how the control system needs to operate.

There is some hope for the future. Some corporations are trying various ways to engender cooperation between the two organizations. In some cases, IT people are being assigned to work for manufacturing side by side with control engineers. In other cases, the OT people are being assigned to IT. And in still other cases, teams are being formed to work together to solve problems between the two groups.

Personally, I am very hopeful that we can find a way for IT and OT to work together to further the goals of both – much more hopeful than I am of Republicans and Democrats working together to solve the country’s problems.

Attn: Our office is closed Monday, 5/27/24 in observance of Memorial Day. Orders placed after 2 pm CST 5/24/24 will be processed 5/28/24.