What is OT Security?

Ransomware attacks targeting oil pipelines, disrupting food production, or defacing sewage and wastewater treatment have one thing in common: They all target Operational Technology (OT) environments.

Computers have become enmeshed in our lives, including factories, utilities, and industry. This provides many benefits but also allows threat actors to gain access and cause significant harm through cyberattacks. Understanding the ins and outs of OT and OT security is essential to keeping businesses safe in the modern world. 

What is OT?

Operational Technology describes the hardware and software systems designed to monitor and control physical devices, processes, and events within various industries, such as manufacturing, energy, and utilities.

Unlike traditional Information Technology (IT), which focuses on data, networking, and computing, OT is concerned with the direct control and automation of physical operations. OT is concerned with managing various systems that enable manufacturing, logistics, or other physical operations. 

These include industrial control systems (ICS), Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems, programmable logic controllers (PLCs), and more.

OT systems have become increasingly digitized, powerful, and interconnected, becoming more like IT environments. That exposes Operational environments to the types of cyber threats and risks that IT security often faces.  

What is OT Security?

OT Security involves safeguarding operational systems. With OT environments increasingly interconnected with IT systems, the need for robust security measures has intensified to prevent unauthorized access, cyberattacks, and system disruptions that could lead to significant operational and safety risks.

What are the differences between IT and OT Security?   

OT Security and IT Security are not entirely distinct topics. Both are ultimately concerned about managing an organization’s digital risks and enabling business operations in the face of threat actors. However, there are still significant differences between both types of environments, the security tools available, and the acceptable risk tolerance in either sphere.

The main differences between OT and IT Security lie in their objectives and the nature of the systems they protect. Traditional infosec teams rarely worry that a hack will get people killed. For OT teams, that’s a genuine risk; medical devices, factory machines, or critical infrastructure can all cause direct harm if disabled or misused.  

OT Security must also function in environments with significantly less agility than IT environments. Operational devices are typically expensive and have long expected lifetimes, compared to an IT landscape where devices are replaced every few years and software is updated regularly. These unique characteristics mean that OT Security teams face several unique challenges.

The Main Challenges of OT Security

Different Protocols and Standards: OT systems frequently use proprietary protocols that are not common in the IT world. Security tools designed for IT environments may not be compatible with these protocols, requiring specialized knowledge and equipment to secure OT environments.

Longer life cycles: OT devices have long lifetimes, often ranging into decades rather than years. Old existing systems are frequently retrofitted with computer components, run old, largely outdated software, and cannot easily be upgraded due to significantly higher costs.

Lack of Visibility: OT environments often need more detailed monitoring and logging. Thanks to the long lifecycle of devices, they often combine disparate systems and devices that integrate poorly. This makes it difficult to detect anomalies and potential security breaches.

Stringent runtime requirements: Downtime in environments like factories, medical devices, or utilities is often much less acceptable than short interruptions in an IT environment. They can be incredibly expensive or life-threatening. That makes finding time to update devices much harder and leaves less margin for errors.

Regulatory and Compliance Issues: OT systems in energy, utilities, and manufacturing sectors often face stringent regulatory requirements. Ensuring compliance while maintaining operational efficiency and security poses additional challenges.

What is IT/OT Convergence?

IT/OT convergence describes how IT and OT systems are becoming increasingly interconnected and interoperable. It contains numerous opportunities and poses further challenges.  

The trend is driven by the value real-time data brings to improve efficiency and decision-making within industrial environments and other OT spaces. Merging IT and OT allows organizations to leverage the vast amounts of data generated by physical operations for analytics, optimizing production processes, and enabling research and innovation. Overall, IT and OT integration promises business efficiency and profit.  

However, this convergence also introduces risks. Interconnected systems can present new vulnerabilities. A threat actor could leverage a vulnerability in a low-security sector, such as an email account, and gain access to essential operational systems with enough lateral movement.

Successfully navigating IT/OT convergence requires a holistic approach to ensure digital security and physical operational integrity.

Key steps to securing OT technology

The concept of segmentation is fundamental to OT security. Broadly speaking, segmentation involves dividing the network into smaller, manageable segments or zones, each with its own distinct security controls. Segmentation enables visibility and control and limits the lateral movement of threat actors. 

In OT security, the segmentation between operational technology and the rest of the IT environment is particularly important. There are several possible approaches, each with its benefits and drawbacks.  

Air-gapping: Air-gapped separation is the gold standard of security for OT environments. Keeping operation technology completely isolated from external networks, including the internet, makes it exceedingly difficult for cyber attackers to infiltrate.

While air-gapping represents the most secure form of segmentation, it also imposes significant costs regarding operational efficiency and data transfer. It eliminates the ability to provide real-time data transfer to the IT environment for analysis and management. This may be the correct decision in some high-risk environments, but for many OT-based organizations, these costs aren’t acceptable.  

Gateways: Network gateways are the most straightforward choice for segmenting OT environments from IT environments. They’re also commonly used within IT environments to provide in-depth defense for corporate networks. Gateways can control access, filter out unauthorized or malicious files, and monitor traffic. When correctly configured, they should keep the OT environment secure while allowing data transfer, monitoring, and management of operational devices.

However, they can be a source of vulnerability when misconfigured. Additionally, threat actors who have breached the IT environment may find ways to access accounts or credentials to access OT systems and wreak havoc. In some regulatory contexts, these security issues may mean that such gateways are not a viable solution.  

Data Diodes: For scenarios where air-gapping is impractical and traditional firewalls may not offer sufficient protection, diodes or one-way gateways offer a compelling compromise. These devices allow information to flow in only one direction, typically from the OT environment to the IT network. Organizations enjoy the benefits of real-time data transfer and analysis from the OT environment while being confident that threat actors will have no way to achieve access.

The challenge with diode-based gateways is that they are a specialized class of networking equipment. Finding workers with expertise in these systems can be challenging, leading to delays and challenges throughout the implementation, management, and maintenance lifecycle.  


Securing OT environments becomes increasingly essential as business’s digital and physical spheres continue to intertwine. The benefits of interconnectivity present opportunities and risks that cannot be ignored.

OT security poses unique challenges for existing cybersecurity teams. Understanding OT security is essential for ensuring operational continuity and safety, from the differences in protocols to the implications of long lifecycle devices and stringent runtime requirements. If you need help tackling these challenges, speak with an ADS advisor today. Our experts have decades of experience at the cutting edge of cybersecurity across all industries, including energy, manufacturing, and healthcare. We can help you navigate the challenges of OT security. 

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