Systems Integrators Bridging Industrial OT-IT Gap Are Changing The Game, 'Understanding Both Sides Of Equation' Is Paying Off

For the IT industry, Control Point is not your average systems integrator.

Employees of the Scarborough, Maine-based company talk to customers not about mobile device management or desktop updates, but about programmable logic controllers and SCADA systems. And instead of partnering with traditional IT companies like Intel or Dell, the company aligns with Red Lion, LEC and Siemens.

Control Point, in fact, is part of a fast-emerging new channel bridging the gap between the highly complex Industrial IoT world and the mainstream IT market. That's no small task given the widely disparate cultural and technology requirements of the two worlds.

[Related: 16 Industrial Vendors With Cool IoT Offerings]

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"We tend to play the role of converging IT and operational technology," he said. "We do understand both sides of the equation and can do a bit of translation for the companies who haven't bridged that gap."

The new channel is made up of engineering contractors, operational technology resellers and systems integrators like Control Point that understand both sides of the equation and are finding a robust market opportunity in Industrial IoT.

Research firm IDC forecast that manufacturing operations will see the largest IoT investment in 2017, to the tune of $105 billion, as more industrial companies implement solutions to help drive efficiency and cut costs on the manufacturing floor.

But manufacturing floors are facing road bumps in the Industrial IoT space, as IT teams lack an awareness of the tedious challenges, requirements and even culture of those on the operational technology side that work with industrial control systems such as programmable logic controllers and HVAC systems.

And on the other side of the coin, many operational technology teams are still in the dark when it comes to critical IT issues like security.

"The automation guys, for the most part, don't understand what's going on over there in the IT world, and the IT guys don't know what's going on in the industrial world," Murray said.

"Our customers who are most effective in doing what they're doing have bridged that gap and have people in their IT department who understand the requirements of the automation engineers on the factory floor, and the engineers understand the requirements that the IT people need to put in their systems to make them more secure," he said.

Jeff Miller, chief technologist of smart manufacturing at Avid Solutions, a Winston-Salem, N.C.-based systems integrator, said many IT teams do not understand just how vital -- and costly -- downtime can be for operational technology companies.

"There's still a lack of perspective from the IT side about what it means to operate in the manufacturing space," he said. "Downtime is equivalent to money. If it takes three seconds longer to load Microsoft Word, that would not be a big deal for an IT environment. But three seconds for a manufacturing floor is unacceptable."

Another challenge lies in the cultural differences between OT businesses, which are skilled in control systems and understand terms like "digital twin" or SCADA systems, and IT teams, which instead have a strong understanding and prioritization of cybersecurity.

Miller leads a team Avid Solutions built up about a year and half ago that helps expand the company's footprint in IT solutions, IoT and cybersecurity.

A vital opportunity for Miller's team is serving as that "interpreter" between the IT and operational technology sides of the IoT as customers connect their systems and infrastructure to the network.

"We are actively engaged in the community in educating our customers on how IoT may play within their IT OT infrastructure," he said. "A lot of companies rely on us to be the liaison between the IT and OT. We understand and communicate with both sides and provide a bridge between them."

Vendors On Lookout For Operational Technology Expertise

Vendors including GE, Honeywell and Schneider Electric, which typically have built products, software and services for legacy manufacturing infrastructure, are now recognizing the IoT opportunity – and looking to their operational technology-based partners to add value.

GE Digital, for instance, launched a channel program in 2016 with a target of "hundreds of thousands" of partners to sell its IoT Predix platform to industrial customers.

"The OT-IT convergence is a critical element tin the success of the customer in Industrial IoT implementations," said Kevin Ichhpurani, executive vice president of global ecosystem and channels and corporate officer at GE Digital.

"This affects our partner strategy in multiple ways. … Many of our systems integrator partners are market leaders in terms of deploying applications in the IT space, and what we see is many of them are making significant investments now in the OT space because of this convergence. [Partners] all come at it from different angles," he said. "Some of our partners come up from the OT world, some are from the IT world and have done acquisitions, and some came from the engineering services side and moved into the IT world."

But traditional manufacturing companies aren't the only ones looking for the expertise of systems integrators with operational technology expertise – IT companies including Cisco Systems and Hewlett Packard Enterprise also are expanding their channels to include these types of partners.

"The other side of the coin of our channel strategy is the OT channel," Rowan Trollope, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's IoT and applications businesses, told CRN. "When we acquired Jasper, we had thousands and thousands of OT buyers. Over 7,000 enterprises using our platform, and that's over double since we bought them. That's some good visibility on the buyer side … it's really about leveraging the strategic relationship we've had with them, and on-boarding their channel. If you think about it, when we go visit factory shop floors, they already have relationships that go back decades with their partners."

At the same time, startups such as Samsara, Augury and Bayshore Networks have emerged from stealth with entire portfolios targeting the IT-OT convergence as part of industrial IoT.

Looking forward, systems integrators said Industrial IoT is opening opportunities for manufacturing companies, and they want to be at the forefront of the market.

"We're seeing more strategies even in the C-suite for customers, where they're looking to do these digital transformations in the OT world. … that's enabling us to connect previously unconnected assets," said Jim Gillespie, CEO of Gray Matter Systems, a Pittsburgh-based systems integrator.

"Because the price point's coming down, we're doing that for manufacturers and water and oil and gas folks," said Gillespie. "So it's impacting what we used to do by democratizing the connectivity or bringing the price point down. But that's still internal and within customers' companies."

Avid Solutions’ Miller agreed, and said the company hopes to expand its IT solutions business through hosting webcasts to build a narrative on what can be done with IoT today.

"Right now, it's more of an educational process with customers, and getting our footprint established internally with customers," he said. ’We're really establishing and setting the stage for our customers to leverage us once the market starts to mature."