System integrator competencies in the age of IT/OT convergence

System integrators (SI) play a critical role in the information technology (IT)/operational technology (OT) convergence journey.

By Yifan Jiang December 9, 2021
Courtesy: Optimate

The information technology (IT)/operational technology (OT) convergence trend is on an accelerated adoption path as more businesses start to realize the relevance between operational data and profitability. System integration (SI) engineers play a critical role in the convergence journey.

OT has evolved in the past decade and is on an accelerated journey to become more complex and more connected. Isolated OT environments are scarce as an increasing number of businesses realize the importance of operational data to profitability.

There are three key stakeholders involved in the IT/OT convergence journey: the product vendors, system integrators (SI) and end users. There are sets of industrial standards and many journal articles that identify and address the inherent challenges and benefits associated with this convergence journey from different perspectives:

  • IEC 62264: Determines the information exchange between IT/OT in end-user organizations
  • IEC 62443: Cybersecurity for OT with guidance on vendor product development, system integrator deliveries and end-user maintenance
  • BOT, S. D. OT-IT Convergence: An Imperative for Industry 4.0. Railway Age, [s. l.], v. 222, n. 2, p. 43–47, 2021
  • Mullins, M. 2020, “How IT/OT convergence affects networking”, Control Engineering, vol. 67, no. 12, pp. 30-31.

However, there is a lack of discussions on the competencies required for SI in the OT space. SIs are responsible for choosing and integrating the system components to architect the optimal solution. This process presents the best opportunity to define system components to maximize the benefits of the convergence while minimizing the risk.

This article defines the essentiality of four core competencies for SI engineers, which will not only assist vendors and end users in the selection of SI partners but also provides young engineers with an overview to identify learning and development opportunities. A sidebar titled “Case study: Data integrity investigation” illustrates the applicability of the competencies in to resolve data integrity issues for an energy generation entity.

Four core competencies for system integrators

Core competencies include competencies in technological adaptability, interpersonal communication, domain knowledge understanding and technical writing.

1. Technological adaptability competency. Technological adaptability refers to competency to proactively learn and understand emerging technologies related to a solution. Figure 1 illustrates the additional complexities added to the OT environment due to IT/OT convergence from a data perspective. The additional connectivity to enterprise resource planning (ERP)/business intelligence (BI) applications and end users from management further strengthen the relationship between operational data and profitability.

Figure 1: Typical OT environment in the age of OT/IT convergence. Courtesy: Optimate

Figure 1: Typical OT environment in the age of OT/IT convergence. Courtesy: Optimate

The introduction of virtualization technology, cloud platforms, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and open communication standards have made the adoption of new technologies much easier and affordable. Figure 2 indicates the variety of technical areas an SI engineer may encounter in the implementation of an OT solution in the new era. This is by no means comprehensive, but a reasonable list of common technologies. It is next to impossible for one to master all aspects of those technologies, therefore efficiently identify and understand the core aspects of the technologies relevant to the OT solution will be the key to any successful implementation.

2. Interpersonal communication competency. Essential interpersonal communication skills enable SI engineers to convey technical solutions to different stakeholders to obtain their support in the project. Traditional stakeholders in the OT environment, as indicated in Figure 3, will have varying levels of knowledge in the OT system, but the additional stakeholders in the era of IT/OT convergence may come from an IT background or a completely nontechnical background. From a benefits realization perspective, functionality entities like finance, trading or logistics are often the exact entities that accelerate and enhance value creation from operational data, hence the emphasis on adequate engagement of these domains.

On many occasions, it is the responsibility of the SI engineer to understand cybersecurity requirements defined by the IT team and configure the OT system to achieve compliance. Since many cybersecurity practices are afterthoughts in OT, frequent engagement and collaboration with the IT team on implementation strategies and definition on level of compliances are required.

In modern software development process, business analysts are the profession to translate business requirements into software functional requirements. However, for an OT development process, SI engineers are often required to directly communicate with the business team to understand the requirements and implement the functions.

The ability to convey OT constraints and functionalities effectively to an extended and new set of stakeholders is an essential competency, and critical to achieving benefits realization in a safe and sustainable way.

Figure 2: Technology map for SI engineers. Courtesy: Optimate

Figure 2: Technology map for SI engineers. Courtesy: Optimate

3. Domain knowledge understanding competency. Most OT system components are not designed for a specific industry domain, for example, the Citect supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system can be found across several industries such as food and beverage, cement, mining and electricity generation.

However, having industrial domain knowledge can greatly enhance the efficiency in the execution of tasks in the entire project lifecycle. This is relevant in the process to interpret functional descriptions and translate that information to detail design specifications. As OT and IT converges with the adoption of more open communication standards, SI engineers are facing a vast amount of choices in terms of product selection to build the detail designs. An experienced SI engineer with specific industrial domain knowledge can efficiently identify key requirements for products and avoid costly rework in later stages of the project.

Familiarity with some of the commonly referred technical standards such as IEC 62443 for OT cybersecurity, IEC 61508 for functional safety, ISA-101 for high performance human-machine interface (HMI) design and IEC 62682 for alarm management can further enhance the efficiency and provide a systematic approach to justify the decision making in many stages of the project execution. Additionally, knowledge in legislations, such as the Australia Security of Critical Infrastructure Act and recent amendments, is beneficial for SIs looking to provide lasting solutions.

Figure 3: Common stakeholders and information to be communicated to. Courtesy: Optimate

Figure 3: Common stakeholders and information to be communicated to. Courtesy: Optimate

4. Technical writing competency. SI documentation forms a key element in the solution delivery. In the era of rising IT/OT convergence, the increased connectivity between different system components further highlights the importance of documentation details. Stakeholders with varying levels of technical knowledge will consider documentation to be essential in the review and approval process.

Adding cybersecurity considerations in the system adds another dimension to this complexity and makes the technical documentation delivered to potentially form part of the audit trail for compliance purposes. The adoption of cloud computing can enable end users with reduced infrastructure management and higher resilience to abnormal situations. However, the justifications on services selection and the inherent running cost in using the cloud environment require a higher level of technical writing competency to convey the key reasons for the decision making to a nontechnical audience.

For example, Amazon Web Services (AWS) offers more than 200 services in its cloud environment. SI engineers need to precisely document key selection justifications for the adoptions of the required services to allow clients to make informed decisions.

Table 1 indicates a list of common documentation involved in an OT project. SI engineers should be competent and experienced in delivering this documentation for each project required.

Case study: Data integrity investigation

The client in this project is an energy generation entity, who has adopted energy trading modeling that uses real-time OT data. The trading function recently noticed inaccuracies in the model and reported to the internal OT subject matter expert (SME). The suboptimal trading was estimated to cause financial losses in millions per day. The SME engaged Optimate to investigate the issue and provide a recommended solution in a timely manner.

Investigation and execution

The OT/IT converged environment consists of:

  • ABB, Citect and Vestas SCADA systems
  • OSISoft PI historian
  • Tableau and client’s data warehouse
  • Proprietary energy trading and optimization models
  • External data from AEMO and BOM.

The initial investigation is where technological adaptability is being demonstrated. Due to the urgency of the issue, as it linked directly to the profitability of the organization, Optimate had limited time to understand the implementation and interfaces configurations.

This investigation is followed by technical discussions and collaborations with a wide range of stakeholders, which included IT, operations, engineering, energy trading, finance and vendors to identify the most adequate solution. During the process, Optimate demonstrated domain knowledge in the energy trading market and peculiarities of integration for windfarms to enable efficient identification of the root cause in the data lineage, which was the SCADA layer. Modifications were made to the data collection frequencies to optimize load, which inadvertently caused compatibility issue with the interval at which the trading modeling was executed. Fixing the problem in the right layer in the data lineage is critical to avoid unnecessary complications in the system and realize the true benefit of all system components.

After the completion of implementation, Optimate provided updated as-built documentation for the data lineage and sufficient information to contribute to the client’s overall OT/IT support framework across multiple platforms.

Table 1: Common documentations delivered by SI for OT projects. Courtesy: Optimate

Table 1: Common documentations delivered by SI for OT projects. Courtesy: Optimate

Final thoughts

The competencies discussed in this are a practical approach in summarizing the most important criteria in SI selection evaluation. They can also provide an overview to guide the development of SI engineers. In this new era of IT/OT convergence, SI engineers with those competencies: technological adaptability, interpersonal communication, domain knowledge understanding and technical writing, can and should carry a greater responsibility in deriving an optimal solution for clients.

Original content can be found at Control Engineering.

Author Bio: Yifan Jiang is a control systems engineer at Optimate Pty Ltd.