Combining IT and OT security for enhanced cyber risk management

September 27, 2023  |  Irfan Shakeel

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Integrating IT and OT security for a comprehensive approach to cyber threats in the digital age.

Historically, IT and OT have operated in separate worlds, each with distinct goals and protocols. IT, shaped by the digital age, has always emphasized the protection of data integrity and confidentiality. In this space, a data breach can lead to significant consequences, making it crucial to strengthen digital defenses. On the other hand, OT, a legacy of the Industrial Revolution, is all about ensuring machinery and processes run without interruptions. Any machine downtime can result in major production losses, making system availability and safety a top priority.

This difference in focus has created a noticeable cultural gap. IT teams, often deep into data management, might not fully grasp the real-world impact of a stopped production line. Similarly, OT teams, closely connected to their machines, might not see the broader impact of a data breach.

The technical challenges are just as significant. OT systems are made up of specialized equipment, many from a time before cybersecurity became a priority. When these older systems connect to modern IT networks, they can become weak points, open to today's cyber threats. This risk is even higher because many OT systems use unique protocols and hardware. These systems, once isolated, are now part of more extensive networks, making them accessible and vulnerable through different points in an organization's network.

Additionally, common IT tasks, like updating software, can be more complex in OT. The equipment in OT often has specific requirements from their manufacturers. What's standard in IT can become a complicated task in OT because of the particular nature of its systems.

Combining IT and OT is more than just a technical task; it's a significant change in how companies see and manage risks. From the physical risks during the Industrial Revolution, we've moved to a time when online threats can have real-world effects. As companies become part of bigger digital networks and supply chains, the risks increase. The real challenge is how to unify IT and OT security strategies to manage cyber risks effectively.

The imperative of unified security strategies

According to a Deloitte study, a staggering 97% of organizations attribute many of their security challenges to their IT/OT convergence efforts. This suggests that the convergence of IT and OT presents significant challenges, highlighting the need for more effective security strategies that integrate both domains.

Steps to integrate IT and OT security:

  1. Acknowledge the divide: The historical trajectories of IT and OT have been distinct. IT has emerged as a standardized facilitator of business processes, while OT has steadfastly managed tangible assets like production mechanisms and HVAC systems. Therefore, the first step towards a unified front is recognizing these inherent differences and fostering dialogues that bridge the understanding gap between IT and OT teams and leaders.
  2. Develop a unified security framework:
  3. Optimized architecture: Given the distinct design principles of OT, which traditionally prioritized isolated operations, it's crucial to devise an architecture that inherently safeguards each component. By doing so, any vulnerability in one part of the system won't jeopardize the overall network's stability and security.
  4. Regular vulnerability assessments: Both environments should be subjected to periodic assessments to identify and address potential weak links.
  5. Multi-factor authentication: For systems pivotal to critical infrastructure, adding layers of authentication can bolster security.
  6. Real-time monitoring and anomaly detection: Advanced tools that can identify abnormalities in data patterns or system functions are essential. Such anomalies often hint at potential breaches.
  7. Incident response protocols: A well-defined, actionable blueprint should be in place, detailing steps to be taken in the event of security breaches.
  8. Structured patch management: Despite the challenges OT systems face with updates, a systematic approach to deploying patches, especially for known vulnerabilities, is crucial.
  9. Continuous training: The cyber landscape is ever-evolving, with new threats emerging daily. Regular training sessions ensure that both IT and OT teams are equipped to tackle these challenges. Moreover, cross-training initiatives can foster a deeper understanding between the teams, promoting a collaborative approach to security.
  10. Implement advanced security solutions: The technical differences between IT and OT require solutions that can bridge this gap effectively. Investing in modern security tools that offer features like real-time monitoring, anomaly detection, and swift threat response can be pivotal. These solutions should be agile enough to cater to the dynamic nature of both IT and OT environments, ensuring that potential threats are neutralized before they can cause harm.

Assessing operation risk readiness:

Cybersecurity is a team effort. The IT team has strong data security knowledge, while the OT team is skilled in handling machinery and physical processes. For effective cyber threat management, OT professionals should build stronger cybersecurity skills, and IT professionals should better understand OT's practical challenges. The Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) should ensure both teams have the right tools, training, and support.

IT and OT security professionals must introspect and evaluate:

  • Whether their incident response strategies align with the primary IT and OT risks impacting their operations and safety.
  • The resilience of their system structures in the face of these risks.
  • Their proficiency in identifying behaviors is suggestive of these risks.
  • The robustness of their remote access protocols to deter these risks.
  • The measures implemented to address significant vulnerabilities in IT and OT networks associated with these risks.


The integration of IT and OT security strategies is paramount in today's digital age. As cyber threats evolve, organizations must adopt a holistic approach, leveraging the strengths of both IT and OT. By fostering collaboration, continuously assessing risks, and implementing robust security measures, organizations can protect their operations and assets, ensuring a secure and resilient future.

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