Over the past decade, IT Service Management (ITSM) leveraging CoBit, Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) and other standards has become a proven, rigorous process in most large enterprises.  The basic components of ITSM include designing, planning, operating, and controlling the IT services provided to users. In practice, this includes the way hardware is configured, patched, managed, and deployed; the way software is developed and deployed; the way in which teams respond to incidents; etc.

ITSM and the ITIL, CoBit and other standards are a foundational element in improving IT cyber security posture. In fact, according to National Initiative for Cyber Education’s (NICE) Cyberseek database, over 50% of the job openings in cyber security are related to operations, maintenance and provisioning – jobs often contained within ITSM functions.

Unfortunately, in most organizations Operating Technology (OT) assets (HMIs, servers, PLCs, relays, RTACs, and other intelligent electronic devices) are excluded from the ITSM processes.  For a variety of reasons – from organizational boundaries to lack of skills of IT personnel on OT systems to regulatory requirements – ITSM practices do not extend to these types of systems. Further, these OT staffs are already under headcount pressures as operations look to increase efficiency.

Organizations should embrace the concept of OTSM (operational technology systems management), paralleling their ITSM practices, but within the unique environments of operating systems.  Achieving a mature level of OTSM is not only critical in terms of improving overall ROI from increasingly connected industrial systems, but also in ensuring the foundational elements of OT cyber security necessary to protect critical infrastructure from targeted and untargeted attacks.


Systems & Security Management is critical for cyber security and reliability

To ensure secure and reliable systems, rigorous systems management is a foundational element.  With almost every report of a major cyber incident, the analysis calls out the importance of maintaining updated patches, secure configurations, limited access and privileges, updating anti-virus signatures, etc. None of these grab headlines like the advanced threat hunters and analysts who go deep in systems to identify the way the hackers made their way into the system or how they exfiltrated data. but they are foundational elements without which our cyber security would be much less effective.

The National Initiative for CyberSecurity Education (NICE), an initiative under NIST, focused on cyber security workforce development, breaks U.S. cyber security job openings into seven types:

  • Operations & Maintenance
  • Provisioning
  • Protect & Defend
  • Analyze
  • Oversee & Govern
  • Collect & Operate
  • Investigate

Of the 350,000+ cyber security job openings in the U.S. as of December 2018, 50% are in the first two categories, which largely consist of roles closely aligned with ITSM.  Another 16% are in Protect & Defend which includes items such as management of infrastructure hardware and software, as well as vulnerability management, which are also closely aligned with key ITSM categories.

These workers and the processes they manage are the backbone of cyber security.  They ensure systems are provisioned securely when moved into production.  They monitor for changes to configurations that do not align with secure baselines.  They ensure passwords meet organization standards.  They monitor and deploy software patches necessary to maintain security of systems in the field.  This is not at all intended to understate the importance of the other roles of analyzing or investigating, but we often overlook this fundamental practice of reducing your attack surface, keeping up good cyber hygiene and executing the most important asset level protective functions.


ITSM often does not extend to OT

In most organizations, the current procedures, policies and service agreements to manage IT systems do not extend to the Operating Technology environment. This results in functions normally associated with ITSM such as asset inventory, provisioning management, patch management, configuration management, disaster recovery, incident response, etc. are, in most cases, either not managed at all or are applied at a local or business unit level without the same level of rigor, process, and consistency as in the IT realm.

To be clear, this is not a blanket statement. In some organizations, we have seen IT absorb the OT function and employ similar systems management across both environments with the necessary customization to the OT requirements.  In others, we have seen robust OT Systems Management, often as a result of regulatory compliance requirements such as medium and high impact assets within the NERC world. But, on the whole, we have found an ad hoc approach to OTSM, if any approach at all.

When we do see an ad hoc program we often discover the responsibility for this task often falls to an instrument and controls technician who has tuned the DCS in the past or a “plant IT” representative or a chemical engineer that runs the manufacturing system.  In most cases, these individuals were not trained in systems management, or perhaps even on the IT equipment they are using. Most follow processes developed solely by operations engineering or locally for an individual plant, hospital, or facility. They do not leverage the same toolkits as their IT counterparts due to difficulty or risk to deploy and access IT tools within the OT environment.

These same individuals are being asked to pick up these new tasks often in conjunction with their day jobs – build an inventory and keep it up to date on a regular basis, patch systems on a regular basis, ensure password policies are enforced, ensure that firewall rules are properly configured, and ensure in the process they don’t take the plant offline. Again, this is not true in every organization, but it is certainly the norm, not the exception.


Launching a new discipline called “OTSM”

There is a need for a new discipline for OTSM.  Even if there is IT OT convergence in an organization, a need will arise to customize the policies, processes, tools and likely the team responsible for OT to ensure the sensitivity to the OT environment.

So how does an organization go about setting up a robust program?  We have discovered that developing a mature OTSM process involves four key elements:


  • Establish policies and procedures that match the specific OT environment of that organization

The great news is that in most organizations they have a base of IT policy and procedure templates to draw from, such as SANS or NIST. The key is taking those frameworks and building the specific elements necessary for the unique OT environments.  For instance, in a pharmaceutical company, the patch management policy for a production line may differ significantly from the R&D lab where product is tested in small batches.  Similarly, procedures for configuration changes need to reflect the different regulatory structures within each industry and geography.  Consideration needs to be made for DCS vs. SCADA deployments.  Geographic proximity between the team, tools and assets in scope make for very different dynamics in execution of OTSM functions.

  • Develop talent and workforce

In many cases, the personnel responsible for OTSM will be techs and local IT staff.  In IT, most systems management functions can be centralized and done remotely – and with the growth in the cloud this becomes even more true.  In much of the OT environments, the actioning of systems management will require local resources (or at least local representation/oversight) – from patching to changing configuration settings to incident response. The downside risk of a patch deployment taking a machine, and therefore the plant process, offline is often too great to do remotely.  A false alarm in a manufacturing facility is significant, and in most cases incident response will require a local or at least OT-trained staff member to evaluate potential risk and remediation steps.

As a result, workforce development around key OTSM concepts such as patching,            configuration management, and password management are necessary.  We certainly applaud the significant training available around cyber security analysis, investigation, and threat hunting, but at least that amount of focus needs to be placed on the other 50% of cyber security – i.e. the foundational elements of Systems Management.

  • Identify relevant tools and automation

Plant operations and IT budgets are not increasing. All of the effort of operations leadership is to use technology to reduce O&M budgets. OTSM must deliver automation and simplification of tasks, rather than increasing the burden. By using ITSM, IT leadership has significantly reduced the cost of IT management. That same effect is available in OT. Well-managed operations and maintenance functions not only provide a proper foundation for cybersecurity, but also improve plant uptime, reliability and throughput by identifying potential operational issues earlier and accelerating response to incidents as they occur.


  • Understand that OTSM requires a significant change effort

Traditionally, industrial controls systems have been seen as long-term capital investments that will last 15-20 years between major upgrades.  OTSM requires regular management: updating, configuration management, access management, vulnerability management, etc. In many cases, this will require changes to the mindsets and behaviors of team members as well as the more functional training and procedural requirements. Senior leadership is key to making this change effective within already stretched operational organizations.


Cyber security success relies on OTSM

Success in OT cyber security and reliability requires a new foundation in OTSM. Systems management is a critical element to ensuring that these connected systems are protected and managed appropriately.  Based on our 25 years’ of experience in managing these ICS systems, to achieve success will require both a change in mindset and skills as well as a new set of tools that allow for increased automation in a way tailored to the unique features of the OT environment.

Related Resources


Why is OT Systems Management Critical to ICS Systems Security?

How OT security leaders can apply IT Systems Management into ICS systems security into a new approach called OT Systems Management.

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OT Systems Management Whitepaper

Achieving a mature level of OTSM is critical to improve overall ROI from increasingly connected industrial systems and to ensure foundational elements of OT cyber security are in place to protect critical infrastructure from targeted and untargeted attacks.

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Risk Management for OT Endpoint Security: 5 Steps for Success

How to take a true endpoint risk management approach for successful cyber defense efforts. This approach provides an OT-specific way of conducting ITSM.

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