The integration of OT (Operational Technology) and IT (Information Technology) has become a hot topic in the era of Digital Transformation. For long the topic has been approached from the perspective of integrating IoT solutions into existing IT infrastructures and enterprise apps, forcing the latter to adapt to the fast-growing world of IoT devices.
As an IoT developer who has witnessed first-hand the evolutions of that integration over the past couple of decades (gosh, that doesn’t make me any younger!), I’d like to challenge this perspective: in reality, we are witnessing a fascinating shift where IT technologies are being seamlessly integrated into IoT solutions, not the other way around. Let me explain.
IT Professionals' resistance to integrating IoT devices
IT professionals have been resisting the integration of IoT devices into their secure enterprise networks, tools, and infrastructures from the very beginning. If you ask any embedded developer what their IT department answers when they ask to connect their dev boards to the corporate network, you’ll get the same answer: “No way!”. We can’t blame IT Pros for not wanting to introduce new security threats and expose their enterprise networks. Their primary concern is maintaining the integrity and security of existing systems while incorporating IoT devices into the same robust tools they use for servers and PCs, and not having to learn and add a new set of tools in their processes. From provisioning to deployment and updates of apps, all the way to threats monitoring and remediation, a successful integration will happen only if they can do it all in a unified and practical way. Amazon Inspector and Azure Defender are great illustrations of this: they both totally integrate IoT, giving IT professionals a single pane of glass to assess and monitor their hybrid apps security from Edge to Cloud.
The Rise of Edge Computing and Containers
Beyond the need to connect and manage IoT devices, IT Pros also face the challenge of distributing apps no longer just across Cloud resources, but also across hybrid infrastructures, Cloud + Edge, because in the pursuit of faster response times, reduced data transport costs, and keeping critical data on premises, cloud applications are evolving into distributed hybrid solutions. Workloads are increasingly distributed to the Edge, resulting in the need for managing and monitoring applications deployed in this distributed environment. This is where IT professionals and developers have found solace in containerization and container orchestrators, such as Kubernetes.
Kubernetes, originally designed for managing cloud-native applications, is now becoming the de facto standard for deploying and running workloads at the Edge. IT professionals and developers, already well-versed in Kubernetes and DevOps practices, find it easier to extend their expertise to manage Edge deployments. The familiarity and ease of use make it a natural choice for managing and maintaining workloads across the IoT landscape.
If you are about to comment on the fact that containerization is nowhere near to arriving on microcontroller devices, hold your horses 😉. First, consider the fact that every single IoT device is behind a gateway of some sort. Be it a communication gateway (WiFi, 5G, Bluetooth, LoRaWAN …) or a functional gateway that does the heavy lifting of protocol translation, image processing or other fancy compute task. And these gateways not only are part of the IoT solution, but they also run some form of Linux or Windows which support K8S or similar. You also need to consider that containers are a remarkably interesting app model appealing to many developers, even for embedded devices. If you don’t believe me, check out this interesting article about Wind River's containers for embedded Linux and OCI-compliant container support for VxWorks.
Industry Standards driving adoption of mainstream Cloud PaaS services
An interesting note about containers and orchestrators being used at the Edge is that the industry is favoring technologies that are standard, rallying around projects driven by the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF). This aligns with the broader trend in the IoT industry to prefer standardized protocols, such as MQTT (Message Queuing Telemetry Transport) or OPC-UA (OPC Unified Architecture), which is a much welcome trend if you ask me.
And even though there is still much to do to reconcile the mess that IoT is today, one of the results is the diminishing need for specialized IoT services in the cloud. Why use a specialized service to connect devices if you can authenticate them using TLS and receive data from the edge in a JSON format? Now you can just use mainstream cloud Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) offerings to build robust IoT solutions simply shopping and integrating all sorts of resources from Cloud Providers and their partners, resources not specialized for IoT and used in other scenarios such as: MQTT brokers, identity management systems, storage & analytics services, data visualization tools, time series services and more.
Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t void the specificities of IoT scenarios. IoT apps are still a special and complex thing. More on that in my previous article about IoT developers.
So, which is it? OT integrating into IT or the other way around?
The integration of OT with IT is no longer about simply integrating IoT solutions into existing IT infrastructures. Instead, it has evolved into a scenario where IT technologies and practices are seamlessly integrated into IoT solutions. IT professionals, who have struggled in the past to incorporate IoT devices into their secure networks, are finding comfort in leveraging their existing expertise in cloud-native technologies like Kubernetes.
Furthermore, as industry standards are becoming more prevalent, the lines between OT and IT continue to blur. The adoption of MQTT, OPC-UA, and other standardized protocols empowers IT professionals to extend their knowledge and tools into the IoT landscape. The integration of cloud and IT technologies into IoT solutions is now the primary focus, shaping a future where seamless connectivity and manageability become the norm in the IoT ecosystem.