How the Pandemic Highlights the Need for Convergence in OT

How the Pandemic Highlights the Need for Convergence in OT
How the Pandemic Highlights the Need for Convergence in OT

The pandemic has spurred new work paradigms and the rapid adoption of innovative solutions to sustain business operations. Organizations were compelled to rethink how they do business and adjust to the reality that most of their employees presently work from home–and will for the foreseeable future. This has upped the pressure on IT departments and introduced new security concerns. These challenges also impact a broad range of Operational Technology (OT) industries and the heightened risk has clearly been significant.

Arguably, coronavirus has illuminated valuable lessons, chief among them the realization that disruptive changes can happen at any time. Though it is difficult to anticipate with accuracy the extent and frequency of disruption, it is important to instill a penchant for readiness. COVID-19 drove rapid network innovation while accelerating broader IT and OT convergence. The degree of change extends beyond just the convergence of IT and OT networks, and clearly there’s a need to address and solve challenges with simultaneous attention toward advancing both security and networking solutions.

COVID-19 and the impact on OT facilities

Historically, manufacturing environments are hardly agile enough to entrust delegation of critical functions as a remote process. Mandated COVID-19 quarantines forced many production lines to slow or shut down completely, as workers are unable to report in person to sustain plant operations. In an IT environment, powering down a device or changing a software process is relatively straightforward and can be done remotely. In the world of OT, it’s not as simple to shut down an assembly line or switch off a chemical process.
Boilers, blast furnaces and other such systems are intended for continuous operation, which makes it nearly impossible to turn them off completely. In many instances, a minimal crew needs to be on-site to run a plant or process just to keep the machinery from failing. In an effort balance workforce risk, more operators are seeking to innovate as part of enabling a greater percentage of remote operation despite the disposition of cyber physical systems that were designed for closer physical access.

The merger of IT and OT

As OT and IT realized greater connectivity, the shift has enabled more effective and efficient monitoring of critical processes. This merger has also provided organizations with the ability to virtually leverage data from industrial applications (including robotics), enabled sensors, medical devices and software-defined production processes. These new abilities make real-time decision making possible, as well as significant cost savings with respect to power consumption and employee efficiency.

These benefits are significant, but they carry proportional risk. As IT and Operational Technology (OT) departments and their respective support systems converge, potential security risks emerge. Without an effective OT security plan, ICS/SCADA systems are vulnerable to cyberattacks that could result in financial loss, reputational damage, diminished consumer confidence and even threaten citizens’ safety and national security.
An important realization when converging  IT and OT networks is the considerable expansion of the attack surface that enables access to an environment where vulnerabilities exist. In fact, it is the very pursuit of operational efficiency through IT/OT convergence that led to broad connectivity and exposure to more traditional IT threats. This connectivity not only brings added risk but, more to the point, opens the door for cybercriminals in a way that was not possible when these systems were isolated. 

Security and networking must also converge

Corresponding with the decision to connect IT and OT networks and gain operational efficiency, comes the need to proportionally focus on security and networking. Convergence of OT/IT infrastructure demands amplified attention on security and committing to a more proactive strategy.  It is simply not enough to secure the perimeter as the dynamic nature of many networks makes it difficult to precisely define that perimeter.  What was once a narrow point of access at the edge of the network now extends across the entire IT/OT infrastructure and beyond the traditional trusted zone. This introduces new security requirements across all of the edges that make up the new network—WAN, local-area network (LAN), the data center, remote workers and cloud access, not to mention the ICS/SCADA systems.

How can an organization secure a network that enables any person using any device to access any resources from any location? Security-driven networking—a strategy that converges networking and security across the connected environment, from the core to the branch and remote workers and into the cloud—enables organizations to effectively see and defend today's highly dynamic environments. At the same time, it preserves an excellent user experience for employees and customers, keeping them relevant, competitive and resilient.
Networks that have security embedded in their core are able to easily adapt and incorporate digital innovations and do so at levels the next generation of computing—including multi-cloud, 5G, hyperscale and other fast-arriving trends—requires. Converging networking and security enables a security strategy that is highly flexible and adaptive, supporting anywhere operations.

Preparing for the unknown

The pandemic has taught the business world that although no one can predict the future, we can take steps to develop more integrated, agile network security. Protecting your OT environment demands an ecosystem approach that will likely involve working with multiple vendors that provide a variety of equipment: the ICS system itself, tools for visibility into highly specialized OT devices and PLCs, probes and analyzers.  It is equally important to recognize that no single vendor can complete the OT security picture independently, so be sure the suppliers you choose can work collaboratively to achieve protection of high valued cyber physical assets. Commitment to a proactive network security strategy ensures visibility, control, and automated awareness as the foundation to realizing cybersecurity maturity and confidence in sustaining safe and continuous OT operations.

About The Author

Rick Peters is CISO for Operational Technology, North America, Fortinet.

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