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operational technology (OT)

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

Operational technology (OT) is a category of hardware and software that monitors and controls how physical devices perform.

In the past, OT was used primarily in industrical control systems for manufacturing, transportation and utilities -- and unlike information technology (IT), the technology that controlled operations in those industries was not networked. Many of the tools for monitoring or making adjustments to physical devices were mechanical and those that did have digital controls used closed, proprietary protocols.

Today, however, as physical devices are becoming "smart," there is an increasing trend toward IT/OT convergence. Wireless connectivity has provided administrators in charge of operational technology with better monitoring systems and the ability to control physical devices remotely. Advances in machine-to-machine (M2M) communication and machine learning have created a sea change, allowing the data that physical devices produce to be analyzed in real time in order to facilitate autonomy, allow preventive maintenance and improve up-time.

As Internet-capable technology has moved into industrial control systems and supervisory control and data acquisitions (SCADA) networks. However, operations technology faces the same malware, identity management and access control security challenges that IT faces. The difference is that vulnerabilities in an OT system can leave critical infrastructure at risk of sabotage that can result in life or death situations if not addressed. 

This was last updated in March 2016

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