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Gartner: It's time for IT and OT to merge

As operational technology and information technology converge in the workplace, should CIOs be controlling the whole shebang?

LAS VEGAS -- Engineering-based operational technology, or OT, increasingly looks a lot like IT. The Supervisory...

Control And Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems that engineers use to monitor and control mission-critical processes in real time, for example, are a sophisticated amalgam of hardware and cutting-edge software. Is it time for IT and OT to merge, and who should be in charge?

That was one of the debates at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo taking place here this week.

It seems improbable that CIOs would elect to expand the wide spectrum of responsibilities that come with the job. Isn't life hard enough? And, in fact, in a poll of the audience on this question, more than half nixed the idea of taking on OT. The majority agreed with Gartner analysts Diane Morello and Kristian Steenstrup that IT can't play cop to OT, and IT can't take over what it doesn't know. Does anyone really want IT, for example, playing around with the software systems that fly planes?

But Gartner analysts Jorge Lopez and Colleen Young argued that unless CIOs want to relive the chaotic, pre-ERP years of the 1990s, when businesses were buying software willy-nilly, they should move now to take control of the IT aspects of operational technology.

OT departments do not have the maturity to handle the convergence of operational and information technology, Lopez and Young said, adding that engineers are relatively "blind" to the software lessons of the last 20 years. Top management engineers, exacting and smart as can be, aren't trained in the acquisition, care and feeding of cost-effective IT. Experts in their own domain, operational engineers don't have the "horizontal" view of how IT is used throughout the organization, Lopez and Young argued. Common systems, with IT in charge, bring economies of scale and let IT and OT focus on the differentiating technology that matters.

Power of convergence

Mike Brozek, an engineer by training, raised his hand when the Gartner panel asked if there were any engineers in the room, after the audience voted on whether IT should take control of OT. "I guess we know where you stand on this issue," the moderator quipped. In fact, Brozek, director of telecom at Westar Energy Inc., is proof that such mergers are tough but can bring huge benefits to the business.

The IT folks generally are the better technologists because we can step back and see the technology landscape of the whole company.

Mike Brozek, director of telecom, Westar Energy Inc.

Operational engineers and IT practitioners used to be at odds with each other at the Topeka, Kan.-based utility, Brozek recounted in an interview after the session. Westar engineers thought IT didn't have a clue about what it really meant to operate technology in real time. The IT folks couldn't believe OT's ad hoc approach to the acquisition of technology or accounting in what is, after all, a highly regulated industry.

The dialogue between the two groups reflected the basic distrust, Brozek recalled. A debate could quickly devolve to name calling.

Two years ago, top brass wanted an end to the fighting and proposed integrating the two departments. The merger took a year.

"It was a difficult merger, but it has been wonderful," Brozek said.

The operational technology engineers, with their "laser focus on the business," have been able to show IT what it means to operate flawlessly in a real time, he said. Unlike a billing system that goes down, a SCADA failure can bring a company to its knees in seconds, or worse, result in loss of lives. Brozek said IT learned a lot from OT engineers about testing systems and how to train people.

And IT has "been great for OT," Brozek said, bringing ITIL-inspired standards to the OT use of technology and a "big picture" perspective. "They have great depth in what they do, and the IT folks generally are the better technologists because we can step back and see the technology landscape of the whole company."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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