Complex Challenges, High Stakes

Over the last 20 years, digital transformation has revolutionized the industrial sector, fueling innovation and efficiency. But this progress has come at a price: the heightened vulnerability of Operational Technology (OT)

Successful cyberattacks on OT systems are rising, putting critical infrastructure at risk and demanding immediate action from organizations. Sadly, the way forward is riddled with complex challenges – a skills shortage, outdated legacy systems, and more. There are no easy answers.

Building a resilient OT security program is possible, but it requires a deep understanding of these unique obstacles. 

In this blog post, we'll explore:

We’ll uncover why these OT security challenges are difficult to solve and explore actionable strategies to fortify your OT security program.

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Challenge #1: Gaining Comprehensive Asset Visibility

OT environments are complex: geographically dispersed systems, a mix of legacy and modern devices, and specialized components. Traditional IT security tools often can’t fully discover or manage these unique assets. This lack of visibility creates significant security risks:

  • Unknown Vulnerabilities: Without comprehensive visibility into all OT assets, critical vulnerabilities can go unidentified and unpatched, providing attackers with easy access points for exploitation.
  • Shadow OT: Unmonitored devices or systems added to the network without proper authorization create a hidden attack surface that’s impossible to secure, making managing cyber risks extremely difficult.
  • Slow Incident Response: Without real-time visibility into OT assets and potential threats, security teams struggle to identify and contain breaches quickly. This delay gives attackers more time to cause operational disruptions, safety hazards, or significant damage.

The Solution: Strategies for Enhanced Visibility

Achieving the necessary visibility into a complex OT environment requires a combination of specialized tools and strategic processes:

  • Specialized OT Asset Discovery: Deploy OT-specific asset discovery tools that identify and profile all devices, even those using legacy or obscure protocols. These tools should reveal the full scope of your OT environment and empower you to take action. Through them, you can configure settings, deploy security updates, and respond to potential threats directly, streamlining your OT security operations.
  • Continuous OT Network Monitoring: Implement monitoring solutions that understand OT communication patterns, providing real-time alerts on anomalies, unauthorized activity, or changes that could be signs of compromise.
  • Centralized Monitoring Dashboard: A single dashboard consolidates visibility across your OT landscape. This unified view simplifies risk analysis, streamlines incident response, and aids IT/OT collaboration.
  • IT Integration (Where Feasible): When safe, integrate select OT monitoring data with IT security tools and ticketing systems. This bridges visibility gaps and encourages faster more collaborative threat response.
Watch On Demand: Building the Foundation with Asset Inventory and Assessment

Industrial organizations face mounting pressure to secure OT systems, but the task is daunting. Watch our on-demand webinar to learn the critical first step – a complete OT asset inventory – and strategies to overcome data collection challenges for long-term security success.

Challenge #2: Managing Legacy Systems

Legacy OT systems, often plagued by outdated software and unsupported hardware, pose unique cybersecurity challenges within industrial environments. This presents several security challenges:

  • Exploitable Vulnerabilities: Legacy OT systems often lack security patches and updates, leaving them with known vulnerabilities that attackers have detailed information about. These vulnerabilities could allow attackers to gain unauthorized access, remotely control industrial systems, install malware, or steal sensitive data, potentially leading to production shutdowns, safety hazards, or environmental damage.
  • Compatibility Constraints: Retrofitting modern security measures onto legacy systems can be very challenging. These systems may use outdated protocols, have limited memory, or lack the processing power for modern encryption or authentication methods. Security updates that aren’t carefully designed for this environment could cause operational instability, communication errors, or even damage to equipment.
  • Maintenance Headaches: Finding replacement parts, vendor support, or skilled personnel with knowledge of legacy systems and their unique security risks becomes increasingly difficult and expensive. Organizations may face hefty costs for specialized expertise or choose between operating outdated systems or undertaking a complex, large-scale modernization project.

The Solution: Strategic Mitigation, Phased Modernization, & Temporary Protections

Legacy systems require a plan that balances risk reduction with long-term modernization. Here’s how:

  • Know What You Have: Create and continuously maintain a comprehensive asset inventory. Identify all legacy systems, their configurations, known vulnerabilities, and the criticality of their role in your operations.
  • Prioritize Strategically: Don’t try to fix everything at once. Use your inventory to target the most critical legacy systems for updates, replacements, or protective measures. Consider both the security risk and the potential operational impact when prioritizing.
  • Plan for Gradual Modernization: Develop a detailed roadmap for replacing legacy systems and aligning upgrades with planned maintenance windows to minimize operational disruptions. This is a long-term project, so phasing is essential.
  • Protect What You Can’t Patch: If immediate updates or replacements aren’t feasible for high-risk legacy systems, isolate them through network segmentation. Implement compensating controls like strict access policies, whitelisting, and continuous monitoring. 

Challenge #3: Bridging the IT/OT Divide

The tug-of-war between innovative technology and reliable operations is a tale as old as time. New technologies promise progress, but established practices ensure stability. Today, this tension defines the IT/OT divide in industrial security, where the drive for digital transformation clashes with the need to maintain critical operations. Here’s how this age-old challenge manifests in modern-day IT/OT teams:

  • IT Security Solutions Don’t Always Work in OT: IT security prioritizes rapid fixes, but these solutions may disrupt sensitive OT systems, causing shutdowns, malfunctions, or communication failures that can halt production.
  • Conflicting Priorities: IT and OT have different security priorities. IT focuses on data confidentiality, while OT prioritizes uninterrupted operations and safety. This misalignment means security decisions created for IT environments often fail to account for the unique requirements of OT systems. 
  • The Expertise Gap: Many IT teams don’t have experience with OT systems. This makes it difficult to understand, assess, and prioritize risks based on their true impact on operations, leading to misaligned security decisions.

The Solution: Fostering Collaboration and Strategic Alignment

Building resilient OT security demands a strategy that addresses this challenge’s human and technological aspects. Here’s how organizations can begin to bridge the divide:

  • Shared Risk Assessments: Establish a collaborative process where IT and OT teams jointly map critical assets, prioritize vulnerabilities based on security risk and operational impact, and develop coordinated incident response plans. This fosters a shared understanding of threats and response needs.
  • Knowledge Exchange: Facilitate ongoing cross-training programs to foster mutual understanding. IT teams should gain insight into OT fundamentals while OT personnel build cybersecurity awareness. This breaks down silos and improves cross-team communication.
  • Visibility & Control, Tailored for OT: Implement specialized OT security solutions that provide in-depth visibility and granular control over OT assets. These solutions should enable safe monitoring and remediation activities without disrupting operations.
  • Joint Technology Evaluation: IT and OT teams should partner to evaluate technology solutions based on their ability to address shared security pain points. Prioritize vendors who offer solutions that bridge visibility gaps, improve communication, and support efficient, coordinated incident response across IT and OT.

See how Verve's solution provides the insight and control you need without disrupting production.

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The Key to Overcoming OT Security Challenges

Throughout this blog post, we explored three critical OT security challenges: the IT/OT divide, legacy systems, and limited visibility. While solutions exist to address each challenge individually, achieving comprehensive OT security requires a more integrated and strategic approach.

OTSM: Your Solution for Visibility, Risk Management, and Resilience

OTSM (Operational Technology Systems Management) is a framework designed to meet the unique security and management needs of OT environments. It adapts proven IT service management strategies (ITSM) to deliver a structured approach for handling OT assets, security risks, and incidents. 

Here are a few key components of OTSM:

  • Comprehensive Asset Discovery and Inventory: OTSM begins with a deep understanding of your assets. It emphasizes creating a complete and continuously updated inventory of all OT devices, including their configurations and known vulnerabilities. This visibility is the basis for strong security.
  • Risk-Based Prioritization: OTSM helps you focus resources where they’ll have the greatest impact. It prioritizes vulnerabilities based on their potential to disrupt operations, ensuring the most critical risks are addressed first.
  • Vulnerability Management: OTSM facilitates proactive identification, prioritization, and patching of vulnerabilities in your OT systems. When patching isn’t possible, the framework supports the implementation of alternative safeguards to mitigate risk.
  • Improved Incident Response: OTSM supports the development of dedicated OT incident response plans. These plans ensure rapid and effective containment of security breaches or malfunctions, minimizing disruptions to critical operations.
  • IT/OT Collaboration: OTSM bridges silos between IT and OT teams. It promotes shared visibility into OT assets, risks, and processes. OTSM fosters a common understanding of security goals and aligns strategies for a more cohesive, proactive defense. This collaboration streamlines communication and aids in swift incident response.
  • Think Global, Act Local: OTSM provides a centralized view of your entire OT landscape, enabling global risk analysis and strategic decision-making. Simultaneously, the platform empowers OT teams with the tools and autonomy to implement safeguards, respond to incidents, and manage operations effectively, adapting solutions to their local needs.

For a deeper dive into building a proactive OT security strategy, read our guide:

Building an OT Systems Management Program

Companies taking this strategic approach to OT security reap numerous benefits, including improved threat visibility, reduced risk, and enhanced operational resilience.

Case Study: From Siloed Security to Unified OT Protection

A North American utility company faced siloed IT/OT security, limited visibility, and a mix of legacy assets, so it sought to unify its security approach across the entire network.

With the support of Verve, they implemented OTSM to establish a single Systems Management (SM) framework, aligning IT and OT security standards. This initiative included:

  • Deploying specialized tools to gain comprehensive visibility into legacy and modern assets.
  • Establishing standardized processes for vulnerability management, incident response, and system updates.
  • Training personnel in OT-specific security best practices.

As a result, the company achieved significant improvements, including:

  • Comprehensive Asset Visibility: OTSM provided a complete, real-time inventory of all OT assets, empowering informed decision-making about risks and security investments.
  • Unified Security Framework: IT and OT teams collaborated effectively, sharing knowledge, coordinating security efforts, and streamlining processes to enhance the network’s overall protection.
  • Increased Cybersecurity Maturity: The company improved its cybersecurity posture across IT and OT domains through standardized practices, proactive threat mitigation, and ongoing measurement of progress.
  • Operational Efficiency: Improved asset visibility and streamlined security processes increased operational efficiency, reducing downtime and optimizing performance.
Find out how they did it:
Get the complete case study.

The Path Forward

By addressing visibility gaps, fostering collaboration, and taking a risk-based approach to security, OTSM empowers organizations to achieve a more robust security posture. OTSM provides a comprehensive solution, empowering organizations to overcome these challenges and build a secure and resilient OT environment.  

While OT security challenges are real, they are not insurmountable. By adopting a strategic approach like OTSM, organizations can safeguard their operations and confidently navigate the complexities of modern industrial security.

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