What is OT?
Operational Technology (OT) – the hardware and software dedicated to detecting or causing changes in physical processes through direct monitoring and/or control of physical devices such as valves, pumps, etc.
Simply put, OT is the use of computers to monitor or alter the physical state of a system, such as the control system for a power station or the control network for a rail system. The term has become established to demonstrate the technological and functional differences between traditional IT systems and Industrial Control Systems environment, the so-called “IT in the non-carpeted areas”. Examples of operational technology include:
- Computer Numerical Control (CNC) systems, including computerized machine tools
- Scientific equipment (e.g. digital oscilliscopes)
What is OT Risk?
From the very beginning security of Operational Technology has relied almost entirely on the standalone nature of OT installations. Recently OT systems have become linked to IT systems with the corporate goal of widening an organization’s ability to monitor and adjust its OT systems, which has introduced massive challenges in securing them. Approaches known from regular IT are usually replaced or redesigned to align with the OT environment. OT has different priorities and a different infrastructure to protect when compared with IT; typically IT systems are designed around ‘Confidentiality, Integrity, Availability’ (i.e. keep information safe and correct before allowing a user to access it) whereas OT systems require ‘Availability, Integrity, Confidentiality’ to operate effectively (i.e. present the user with information wherever possible and worry about correctness or confidentiality after).
Other challenges affecting the security of OT systems include:
- OT components are often built without basic IT security requirements being factored in, aiming instead at achieving functional goals. These components may be insecure by design and vulnerable to cyber-attacks.
- Vendor dependency: Due to the general lack of knowledge related to industrial automation, most companies are heavily dependent on their OT vendors. This leads to vendor lock-in, eroding the ability to implement security fixes.
- Critical Assets: Because of OT’s role in monitoring and controlling critical industrial process, OT systems are very often part of National Critical Infrastructure As such they may require enhanced security features as a result.
There is a strong focus put on subjects like IT/OT cooperation or IT/OT alignment in the modern industrial setting. It is crucial for the companies to build close cooperation between IT and OT departments, resulting in increased effectiveness in many areas of OT and IT systems alike (such as change management, incident management and security standards).
A typical restriction is the refusal to allow OT systems to perform safety functions (particularly in the nuclear environment), instead relying on hard-wired control systems to perform such functions; this decision stems from the widely recognized issue with substantiating software (e.g. code may perform marginally differently once compiled). The Stuxnet malware is one driver behind this, highlighting the potential for disaster should a safety system become infected with malware (whether targeted at that system or accidentally infected).