Tighter IT/OT integration starts with zero touch

Going to work on the edge? Then IT and OT teams shouldn’t be pulling in opposite directions, says Dell

Sponsored Feature We might all be working for the same organization, even on the same infrastructure. But that doesn't mean we all see things in the same way.

Take the informational technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) teams that keep technology ticking over in most companies of any size. IT used to be something that happened in the datacenter or office. OT was out in the field, in the shape of industrial control or production line systems, remote systems in inhospitable or extreme environments. Or it could simply refer to technology embedded in dispersed operations, such as retail branches, which was decoupled from central IT. It was literally at the "edge" of the organization.

It didn't matter if the folks responsible for each had very different views of their desired outcomes and how to achieve them, because their worlds didn't really overlap. As Dell's Pierluca Chiodelli, VP of Product Management for Edge Solutions at the tech giant, explains, this meant that operational systems tended to be very siloed and use case driven.

"People had specific use cases in mind," he says. "They would identify the specific application or applications needed for their use case, procure the required compute and storage infrastructure, and then install the application. Their use case would be up and running in no time. They would repeat this process for every use case, creating a sprawl of technology silos across the edge locations like factory sites, retail stores, etc."

Recently, there has been a push to process and analyze the large amounts of data locally at the edge (or the OT environments), instead of bringing it to the cloud and the datacenters. This is important to help drive down latency and enable real time insights. And of course, to minimize potential data ingress and egress costs.

This means the edge computing footprint, typically owned by OT, now complements the IT-controlled datacenters, private clouds, or even multiple public clouds based on different geographic regions. And this can leave IT teams and OT teams somewhat at odds.

"The OT team's goal is to keep the business running more efficiently with almost zero downtime," says Chiodelli. If a piece of infrastructure fails, and a production line comes to a halt, or a retail branch is no longer able to access its EPOS systems, that's an immediate problem which must be fixed.

Ultimately, the OT team is looking to optimize the real business operations without risking any unexpected downtime or process disruption. IT teams, by comparison, might have a broader, more long-term view. They are often more focused on modernizing the backend technologies supporting the businesses. They anticipate downtimes and plan them to minimize impact to business.

This difference in perspective between these two teams stretches right through the procurement and management lifecycle, Dell research has shown, with OT staff typically procuring edge infrastructure much faster than their IT counterparts.

Let's look at this the same way

As the research indicates, both OT and IT teams face challenges in edge deployment. These challenges include integration problems, varying requirements, time and resource intensity, legacy technologies, and struggles with automation and deployment. When it comes to deploying new edge applications, both teams find it time-consuming: from purchasing infrastructure to deploying, installing, integrating, and troubleshooting the applications. Nearly 76 percent of the time is spent on routine, repetitive tasks.

"Inefficiencies in edge management operations act as roadblocks to scaling and modernizing the enterprise edge," says Chiodelli. "Automating routine and repetitive tasks, such as installations, upgrade, patching, etc. will free up both IT and OT teams to focus on strategic issues."

So how can organizations align the IT and OT teams at the edge so they can reach their commercial goals more quickly? That's certainly one of the inspirations behind Dell NativeEdge, an edge operations software platform. Chiodelli says the primary aim with the platform is to "centralize and streamline edge operations at scale across the distributed edge computing footprint of enterprises, making it easy to achieve business outcomes consistently across your entire edge estate."

NativeEdge fills two primary roles, he explains. It gives the ability to manage edge infrastructure. It also enables application orchestration. On the infrastructure management side, it enables zero touch provisioning of Dell's edge hardware portfolio (called NativeEdge Endpoints) that are optimized for the platform using a zero trust security framework. As such, customers can have confidence in the entire supply chain of the NativeEdge Endpoints, which include specific servers, PCs and gateways that are digitally signed and certified in Dell factories.

"When these devices get turned on, they're automatically deployed and configured through blueprints in NativeEdge to ensure a zero-trust chain of custody," says Chiodelli. Which should mean that no individual need to involve themselves onboarding the device or provisioning it with the right kind of application workload, because it's all done automatically.

Off the road

This zero-touch provisioning of edge infrastructure means an IT staffer doesn't have to physically visit a location at the edge to install a kit or perform an upgrade, whether that's a factory or a retail branch.

"If you're a retail store, and you need a specific application, and you need a certain server in every store, we will drop ship this to you," explains Chiodelli. "You just power it on, connect the LAN cable and leave it. Nobody has to do anything. Everything will be done automatically through zero touch provisioning".

The logistical benefits of this are clear for a retail organization with hundreds, even thousands of branches. It can mean saving thousands of hours of travel time and billable hours for technicians while expediting the time to value with the edge solutions, for example. When it comes to fixing a failure on an offshore drilling rig, an IT director no longer needs to figure out the logistics of sourcing not just a replacement piece of kit, but also sending a technician out to the site to troubleshoot and replace the system.

The implications stretch beyond the hardware and provisioning the workload. As noted earlier, OT teams deployed solutions in silos, driven by use cases. But managing across those silos can be very tedious and unscalable, especially when they are geographically distributed. As Chiodelli points out, "What if you could consolidate all the siloed solutions and make it easier to manage and scale them?"

This is where NativeEdge's blueprints come to the fore. Blueprints are designed to enable templatized deployment of application workloads as well as NativeEdge Endpoints, ensuring the correct application settings, infrastructure resources, network configurations, workflows, and scripts are applied every time.

"In short, blueprints connect business outcomes to the technical details required to implement them, making it easy for businesses to add new outcomes across their edge estate", says Chiodelli. "These blueprints streamline day-2 operations, incorporating all post deployment tasks such as configuration updates and service alterations within the solution stack." This can mean faster deployment, ticking the boxes for the OT team, while ensuring ease of management, compliance and security, aligning with the IT team.

It's important to note that NativeEdge can orchestrate application workloads as VMs or containers across 'any hardware and multicloud environment'. Ultimately Chiodelli adds, as NativeEdge automates hardware deployment and scales up application orchestration across the edge, using centralized blueprints it provides: "A way for IT and OT teams to align on the timelines to deploy and procure this edge infrastructure and get it up and running."

Does this mean everything is smooth sailing from then onwards? Well, procurement and deployment are just one part of the product and project lifecycle. But fine tuning that process is a great start in making sure that IT and OT staffers are working together at the edge – not on the edge.

Commissioned by Dell Technologies.

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