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My Take on the IT & OT Debate in Buildings

This article is about the relationship between IT and OT in the context of buildings, specifically the systems that automate and manage HVAC, lighting, physical security, and other electro-mechanical systems.
Anto Budiardjo
Anto Budiardjo
PointView, Inc

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I remember distinctly the first time I heard the term “Information Technology (IT)”; it was the late 1980’s while living in London. As a technology geek, the term didn’t initially resonate with me. “Technology was there to help people get things done,” I thought. “what was the use of managing information!” Over the years, the term grew on me as we evolved into an information-centric world.

The recently coined term Operational Technology (OT) gave me a bit of a deja vu feeling, in reverse! OT uses hardware and software (what many think of as IT) to affect things in our physical world. This, I thought was the original purpose of technology! Welcome to the Internet of Things (IoT).

This article is about the relationship between IT and OT in the context of buildings, specifically the systems that automate and manage HVAC, lighting, physical security, and other electro-mechanical systems. The clash between IT and OT comes about since, in a technical sense, they are similar. They both involve network infrastructures and the management of computing devices and software, with issues of upgrades, compatibility, bugs, cyber security, etc.

IT is ubiquitous in the enterprise, almost all functions in today’s organization rely on it to manage vital digitized information (documents, sales projections, appointments). So some say IT should be in charge of OT. That’s the same as saying that HR activities also revolve around information, so IT should be in charge of HR. Clearly an absurd proposition.

The humble lock and key, ceiling fans and light switches are ways to manage the environment where we have operated for decades; I argue that these are pre-digital OT. So the importance of technology to operate facilities is not new, it’s now just digital.

And yet there are IT people and OT people – and seemingly a ravine in between. This is now identified as the barrier holding back adoption of intelligent buildings.

Many OT practitioners are defensive about their fiefdom. I heard one at the recent Realcomm/IBcon conference. This system integrator espoused that he needed to control the OT network backbone and keep it separate from the IT network backbone so that he can “own” the OT system. I recall in the early days of corporate IT when people and departments were laying down their own network to get things done, installing PCs, printers, modems and other equipment because the IT infrastructure did not accommodate their needs. These are all very naive, but understandable behavior, crying out for something better from IT.

At the core of this evolution is how IT and OT contribute to the enterprise. The purpose of IT is to provide tools and services to manage information writ-large, from accounting to documents to HR records. So why not information about the operation of the facility? The purpose of OT is to manage the facility in a way similar to how HR manages people. So to me, IT should provide its services to the operations groups in the same way that it provides services to other groups in the organization.

There is a big “BUT” here. The needs of OT are technical, critical and “unique.” They are technical since the modern-day facility is controlled by devices that look more like computers than the mechanical devices common a decade ago. Many are TCP/IP based like IT networks; but, they tend to be smaller and more prevalent in numbers and hidden from view in janitorial closets and plant rooms. OT needs are typically more critical than IT. Having a problem printing a document (a typical IT helpdesk call) is frustrating to a user; but, a lack of a healthy indoor environment can impact work productivity, directly impact revenue in retail, and at worst, affect the safety of a facility. These are not insurmountable issues, and I am sure that IT people will figure these out over time, but it is IT’s responsibility to understand these problems. OT is their client.

contemporary The “unique” needs of OT are less obvious and will take some time for IT and OT people to resolve. OT systems are complex, very complex, especially in facilities that integrate many different systems, each having specific needs and demands from the digital infrastructure. An HVAC chiller will have dozens of sensors, fans and other components that need to work together in real-time, often across the network. Security systems like access control and CCTV have very specific needs from IT—so does lighting control. Over the decades, OT industries have developed technologies specifically to address their needs. Many OT networks have low-speed twisted pair wiring that often looks like “toys” to IT people, but they work surprisingly well. The IT system (and people) need to fully understand these requirements and provide the infrastructure and services that satisfy the unique needs of OT.

The last point I want to make is about time scales. OT systems in buildings are in essence part of the building structure. Their lifetime is in the order of a decade or more – this in contrast to IT devices that have a much shorter life. Also, a failure of an IT device like a printer will be noticed almost immediately, while the failure of an OT device could go unnoticed indefinitely, or until someone notices a problem due to high energy usage or reduced indoor air quality. Analytics tools will be needed to catch these issues.

It is my view that IT will eventually be the dominant organization for the management of digital infrastructure and services in facilities. The question is how long IT will take to step up to the plate and provide the services that are needed by OT, and not just provide traditional IT services.

We don’t need two digital infrastructures in commercial buildings; one is enough of a challenge!

Originally posted on A New Deal for Buildings


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