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OT Security: From the Basics to Building Your Program

What is OT Security?

Operational Technology security (or OT security) encompasses the practices, technologies, and strategies used to protect the industrial control systems (ICS) and OT that manage physical processes in critical sectors like manufacturing, healthcare, and energy.

The number of cyberattacks targeting industrial settings is on the rise, highlighting the growing importance of OT security. These attacks can lead to severe disruptions, financial losses, and even the risk of lives. Addressing these challenges requires a specialized approach, distinct from traditional IT security, that focuses on the unique devices, priorities, and risks specific to industrial environments.

Expert Guidance for Protecting Critical Systems

With over 30 years of experience in Operational Technology and Industrial Control Systems (ICS), Verve understands these challenges. This guide is your roadmap to understanding the core principles of OT security.

In this guide, we'll cover:
Graphic with question and answer format discussing OT Security. The heading asks 'What is OT Security?' Below it, a light bulb icon precedes the explanation, stating that OT stands for operational technology and defines OT security as a field focused on protecting industrial control systems (ICS), networks, and assets in critical industries such as manufacturing, energy, transportation, and healthcare.

What is OT?

OT, or Operational Technology, refers to the technologies that control industrial operations, including those in manufacturing, transport, and logistics. These systems monitor and manage physical processes.

Key Concepts: OT Systems, Devices, and Use Cases

OT Systems:

OT relies on various systems. Let’s break down the key ones:

  • Industrial Control Systems (ICS): The umbrella term for systems that control industrial processes like manufacturing, transport, and power generation. ICS includes DCS, SCADA, and IIoT systems.

  • Distributed Control Systems (DCS): Used in factories and refineries where processes occur within a specific area. DCS systems directly control and manage production facilities.

  • Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA): These systems monitor and control large-scale processes spread across vast distances, like pipelines or power grids. They gather data from various locations and allow for remote control.

  • Buildings and Physical Access Controls: OT includes elevators, HVAC, lighting, security cameras, and door access systems. These use specialized protocols different from the industrial systems above.

  • Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT): IIoT devices (like smart sensors) often connect to wireless networks instead of traditional control networks. This makes them unique and poses additional security challenges.

  • Medical Devices: These include both hospital equipment (MRI machines, IV pumps) and personal devices like pacemakers or insulin pumps.

Types of OT Devices

OT systems rely on these four key device types:

  • Servers & Workstations: For control, reporting, and running critical software.
  • Network Equipment: Specialized devices managing traffic using industrial protocols.
  • Embedded Control Devices: (PLCs, etc.) Directly controlling processes with custom operating systems.
  • I/O Devices: Providing inputs/outputs to the controllers (sensors, cameras, etc.)

OT in Action: Industry-Specific Examples and Risks

Industry-specific OT includes a wide range of systems, each with its own unique purpose. 

IT Security vs. OT Security

Traditional IT security tools and processes often aren’t a good fit for OT environments. This is because OT systems are fundamentally different in two key ways.

  • Unique Devices: OT relies on a mix of outdated operating systems (like Windows XP or 7), embedded devices (PLCs, controllers, sensors, etc.), and specialized networking equipment. These devices can’t always be easily updated or patched, and need security tailored to their limitations.
  • Different Priorities: IT security focuses on the “CIA Triad”: Confidentiality (protecting data from unauthorized access), Integrity (ensuring data is accurate), and Availability (keeping systems up and running). In OT, the top concerns are Safety (protecting people and property from harm), Productivity (preventing disruptions to operations), and Reliability (safeguarding systems against ransomware and other attacks).

Learn More About the Difference Between IT and OT

Explore the complexities of IT vs OT, their unique roles, integration challenges, and strategic approaches for effective convergence.

Read the Blog
A Venn diagram illustrating the differences and similarities between IT (Information Technology) and OT (Operational Technology) Security. On the left, the IT circle includes points like emphasis on the CIA triad, modern OS-based devices, cloud-based devices, and data privacy. The OT circle on the right prioritizes Safety-Reliability-Productivity, older versions of operating systems, PLCs, controllers, and industrial networking equipment. The center overlap lists shared concerns such as the need for access control, cybersecurity training, antivirus software, and incident monitoring. The title "IT vs. OT Security" is at the top, and the VERVE logo, a Rockwell Automation company, is at the bottom right. The background features abstract designs of interconnected circles and lines, suggesting a network or connectivity theme.

OT Security Challenges

While IT and OT security need safeguards and response plans, securing OT systems throws unique challenges into the mix. Here’s why:

  • Specialized Knowledge Required: OT systems often have unique behaviors and configurations specific to their industrial processes. IT security professionals might not have a deep understanding of these systems to manage them effectively.
  • Careful Response is Key: Responding to incidents in OT environments requires a delicate touch. Unlike IT systems, a hasty response could disrupt critical operations and cause more harm than good.
  • Patching Can Be Tricky: Patching vulnerabilities in OT systems can be complex and expensive. Unlike IT systems, where a single patch might suffice, OT systems may require multiple components to be upgraded, making it a financially challenging task.
  • Skill Gap Exists: The ideal OT security professional possesses industrial control systems and security expertise. Unfortunately, there’s a shortage of personnel with this specific skill set.

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Why OT Cybersecurity is Important

The OT threat landscape systems is rapidly changing, driven by several key factors:

The Blurring Line Between IT and OT

Traditionally, OT systems operated in isolation from corporate IT networks. They used specialized protocols, proprietary devices, and weren’t reliant on external applications. However, this isolation is fading. Modern industrial systems often rely on common IT hardware and software, like Windows operating systems and virtual environments. This increased connectivity expands further with the rise of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) – where data needs to flow freely between OT systems and cloud applications for analysis.

The Rise of Known OT Vulnerabilities

For a long time, OT systems benefited from a kind of “security by obscurity.” Hackers typically targeted widely used IT systems, leaving the more obscure OT systems relatively untouched. But with the increased use of commercial IT components in OT and the practice of building OT systems with common IT elements, this obscurity has vanished. The number of published OT vulnerabilities has nearly doubled in the past two years, and that’s likely just a fraction of the total risk.

Targeted Attacks on Industrial Systems

Motivations for cybercrime are evolving, and attackers are increasingly targeting industrial organizations. In the past, criminals focused on stealing valuable data like credit cards or medical records. Now, they’re discovering the potential for profit by disrupting industrial operations. Ransomware attacks on critical infrastructure are becoming more common, with companies paying millions to avoid costly shutdowns. Nation-states are also showing increased interest in targeting industrial control systems, as highlighted in recent U.S. government reports.

Watch on Demand:
Ransomware Attacks on the Rise - How Do We Defend?

In this panel discussion, OT security experts dive into various topics related to the rise of ransomware in ICS, including how critical infrastructure is vulnerable to these attacks, how ransomware attacks have evolved, and what recommendations there are to mitigate these attacks.

Types of OT Security Threats

Protecting your OT systems requires understanding the different ways they can be attacked:

  • Collateral Damage: Even if hackers target your IT (office) network, the disruption can spread to OT. Examples like NotPetya show how expensive this gets. Poor network segmentation is often to blame.
  • Insider Threats: Employees who make mistakes and those with malicious intent pose a serious risk. This is more common than attacks by nation-states. Strong access controls are crucial.
  • Targeted Attacks from Outsiders: This includes everything from ransomware gangs to nation-states. They might attack for financial gain, to damage critical infrastructure, or to make a political statement.

The Impact of OT Security Breaches

Unlike IT breaches, which primarily impact data, OT security breaches have the potential to cause physical harm, disruptions to critical services, and environmental damage.

Here’s how:

  • OT systems control everything from power grids and water treatment plants to manufacturing facilities. Successful attacks can shut down these critical systems, causing blackouts, halting production, or even leading to equipment damage.
  • OT systems frequently manage processes involving hazardous materials or environments. A breach could result in chemical leaks, explosions, or other disasters that endanger workers and the surrounding community.
  • Environmental consequences can be severe. Imagine a breach crippling a wastewater treatment plant’s systems, leading to the release of pollutants, or an attack on industrial processes releasing harmful chemicals into the atmosphere.
  • Downtime caused by breaches translates directly to lost revenue for businesses and increased costs passed onto consumers. Companies may also face hefty regulatory fines or lawsuits due to the breach.
  • A major security incident can severely erode public trust in a company or an entire industry. This can lead to lost business and difficulty attracting future investments.

How to Stay Informed About OT Security Threats

Several organizations provide valuable resources to stay informed about the evolving OT security threat landscape. Here are a few key ones:

SANS ICS: Offers threat reports, blogs, podcasts, conferences, and training focused on OT security.

IBM’s X-Force: Publishes annual Threat Indexes that include insights into OT security threats.

How to Conduct an OT Security Risk Assessment

OT security assessments are vital for safeguarding critical infrastructure and industrial processes. A well-conducted assessment helps you understand your security posture, identify potential vulnerabilities, and prioritize remediation efforts. Here’s a breakdown of the key phases:

Phase 1
Interviews & Review Available Data
  • Interview key personnel
    regarding current policies,
    procedures, network design,
    etc.
  • Walk-down plant environment
    (in-person or virtual/
    whiteboard)
  • Gather key data on network
    diagrams, asset inventory,
    procedures, access
    management, etc.
  • Evaluate available data and
    develop assessment of key
    gaps and issues
Phase 2
Technical Analysis of Network & Endpoint Risk
  • Deploy software to gather
    endpoint and network
    device information
  • Model penetration and
    incident risks
  • Assess risks across multiple
    threat vectors and
    compensating controls, if
    available
  • Integrate technical endpoint
    and network findings with
    first phase gaps to create
    overall assessment
Phase 3
Development of Prioritized Roadmap
  • Based on prioritized risks
    from the assessment,
    develop a roadmap of
    initiatives
  • Review roadmap with key
    leadership to understand
    timing and challenges of
    different initiatives
  • Develop balanced trade-off
    of security with cost and
    operational disruption
  • Develop a procedure to
    review progress and refine
    roadmap over time

Read the White Paper: Technology-Enabled Vulnerability Assessment

Discover how technology-enabled assessments prioritize security gaps and remediation, saving time and costs for industrial organizations.

OT Security Frameworks and Standards

Navigating the world of OT cybersecurity can be overwhelming due to the sheer number of different frameworks. Luckily, these frameworks offer guidance on building a strong security program. They cover both general OT security and industry-specific best practices. Some are mandatory regulations, while others are voluntary standards. Key frameworks include:

Watch on Demand:
Leveraging IEC 62443 in ICS Security

In this webinar, we will walk through an introduction to the overall standards and try to help make sense out of some of the alphabet soup of different terminology in a practical manner. We will also share practical experiences on addressing these standards and making meaningful progress in your overall ICS security maturity efforts.

OT Security Components to Build a Robust Defense

OT cybersecurity requires a unique approach compared to traditional IT. This is due to factors like specialized devices, legacy systems, and a focus on safety and uptime over data confidentiality. Let’s break down the key components of a robust OT security program using the NIST Cybersecurity Framework as our guide:

Identify

  • Asset Inventory: The Foundation. Knowing what you have is the first step. This means identifying ALL devices (hardware, software, configurations, network connections), and gathering details on patches, vulnerabilities, etc. Specialized tools are needed as traditional IT scans can damage or fail to uncover OT assets.
  • Risk Analysis: What Matters Most. A complete inventory feeds into risk assessment. The goal isn’t just finding EVERY vulnerability but prioritizing the ones that could cause the most harm. Understanding how OT differs from IT is key here – insecure designs and widespread remote access are common risks.
  • Action Plan (Roadmap): Don’t get overwhelmed. Identify the most critical issues and devise a step-by-step plan to fix them over time.

Protect

Think of security in multiple layers to make it harder for attackers to succeed:

  • Policies & Procedures: Set clear rules on system configuration, patch management, who can access what data, and how. Stricter IT standards may need to be adapted for OT.
  • Network Protections: Firewalls, secure remote access solutions, and strategically dividing your network into zones all help limit damage if there’s a breach.
  • Access Control: The principle of “least privilege” is critical. Limit user access to ONLY what they need to do their jobs. This is harder in OT, but not impossible.
  • Endpoint Protection: Patching, secure configurations, and limiting unnecessary software are IT basics that still apply in OT where possible but require special tools and care.

Detect

  • Network Monitoring: Network intrusion detection looks for unusual traffic patterns that could signal an attack. These tools need to be tailored to OT-specific communication.
  • Endpoint Monitoring: Similar to network detection, but focused on device behavior (file changes, unusual activity, etc.). In OT, this can be combined with physical process data for better accuracy.

Respond

Detections are useless without proper response. Have a plan for:

Recover

How To Create an OT Security Program

OT security is an ongoing journey. To make real progress, you need a methodical approach to improve your cybersecurity over time. Here’s how:

Step 1: Set Goals, Assess Where You Stand

  • Choose a Framework: There are many (NIST, IEC 62443, etc.). They offer guidelines, not instant solutions.
  • Get Specific: Don’t just note general problems. Identify the exact vulnerabilities, bad configurations, etc. on each OT device. This lets you prioritize.

Step 2: Create a Roadmap

  • Translate Risks to Action: The assessment shows you what to fix. Now create a timeline with short-term and long-term goals.
  • Pace Yourself: Some problems, like fixing network design, take time and resources. Plan accordingly.

Step 3: Execute Your Plan

  • The Initial Push: This may mean tackling insecure network setup, patching outdated software, managing user accounts… it requires focus and resources.

Step 4: Don’t Forget Maintenance

  • Budget for Maintenance: After the big effort, you need a plan to monitor systems and keep them secure. Budget for this, not just the initial fixes.
  • Reporting & Leadership Backing: Regular reports on security status keep everyone invested in the long run.
Watch on Demand:
How to Create a Comprehensive OT Security Management Program

In this webinar, we review the key elements of a security program. We’ll also talk about building a complete technology stack and tackling the challenges of implementing this across environments with equipment from multiple manufacturers.

The Future of OT Security

In his article, “How to be an OT Visionary,” Dale Peterson suggests that what happens in IT typically sets the stage for developments in OT about five years later.

His observation is right on target. Antivirus was one example, and IT-style systems management is the next wave. But this shift isn’t just about new tools; it’s a fundamental change in how OT operates by embracing a proactive security culture across the entire OT lifecycle.

From Reactive to Proactive: A New Mindset for OT

  • Legacy Approach: Traditional OT prioritized uptime and long lifecycles. Security was reactive and focused on incident response after a breach.
  • The Future Mindset: Proactive security becomes the norm. OT teams continuously identify vulnerabilities, manage risk, and prioritize security throughout the device lifecycle – from design to decommissioning.

Why This Shift is Essential

  • The IIoT Imperative: Industry 4.0 demands connectivity between OT and IT. Firewalls alone won’t suffice – a holistic security approach is needed.
  • The Evolving Threat Landscape: Attackers are targeting OT vulnerabilities more frequently. Passive defenses are no longer enough.
  • Regulation’s Growing Clout: Governments worldwide are tightening OT security regulations, mandating proactive security measures.
  • Boardroom Scrutiny: High-profile attacks have raised awareness. Boards demand robust security strategies to protect critical infrastructure and company reputation.

This transformation hinges on adopting new tools and practices:

  • OT Endpoint Systems Management (OTSM): The cornerstone – automating tasks like vulnerability management, patching, and configuration management, freeing up OT teams for strategic security initiatives.

  • Threat Intelligence: Proactively gather information about emerging threats and vulnerabilities specific to OT systems.

  • Security by Design: Integrate security considerations from the very beginning of the OT device lifecycle, from design to deployment.

  • Continuous Monitoring: Gain real-time visibility into OT network activity to detect and respond to threats quickly.

  • Incident Response Planning: Develop a clear plan for how to react to and recover from a security breach, minimizing downtime and damage.

Protect, Optimize, Thrive: The New Era of OT Security

The future of OT security isn’t about clinging to the past. It’s a call to action, a recognition that security and operational excellence are now inseparable. The old ways of relying on isolation, obscurity, and reactive responses are crumbling in the face of connectivity, relentless attackers, and the rising tide of regulation.

The OT organizations that will thrive are those who see this not as a burden, but as a catalyst. By adopting proactive security, embracing automation, and integrating security into the core of OT operations, they will achieve:

  • Unmatched Resilience: OT systems become harder to breach, and recover faster when the inevitable does occur. This isn’t just about technology, but about building a culture of security awareness.

  • Operational Efficiency Elevated: The time that teams once spent on manual security tasks is freed up for innovation and value-added work. Automation streamlines workflows and reduces human error.

  • Compliance as a Byproduct: When security is baked into processes, reporting becomes a natural output, reducing stress and the risk of costly fines.

  • A Competitive Edge: In a world where cyberattacks can cripple industries, customers and investors will gravitate towards those with demonstrable security leadership.

This transformation will be challenging, but the rewards will be profound: protecting essential infrastructure, driving efficiency, and building a foundation of trust in the digital age.

OT Security FAQs

What is OT security?

OT Security (Operational Technology Security) is the set of practices, technologies, and strategies specifically designed to protect the industrial control systems (ICS), SCADA systems, and other specialized hardware and software that control physical processes and operations.

 

OT security focuses on ensuring the safety, availability, and reliability of these systems, as disruptions can lead to physical damage, production loss, or even endanger lives.

 

It differs from IT security by prioritizing operational continuity and safety, and necessitates specialized knowledge of industrial systems and protocols.

What's the difference between IT and OT security?

IT security (Information Technology security) and OT security are both crucial for modern organizations, but they have distinct focuses and priorities.

IT Security:

Focus: Protects the confidentiality and integrity of data within business networks, servers, and user devices.


Main Threats: Malware, phishing attacks, data breaches, and unauthorized access.


Skills Required: Network security, data encryption, threat detection and response.

 

OT Security:

Focus: Ensures the availability, reliability, and safety of industrial control systems (ICS), SCADA systems, and the physical processes they manage.


Main Threats: Sabotage, operational disruptions, potential safety hazards, and cyber-physical attacks that can cause real-world damage.


Skills Required: Understanding of industrial protocols, processes, safety standards, and the potential consequences of cyberattacks.

 

Learn More>>

Why is OT security important now?

OT security is more critical than ever due to:

 

Increased Connectivity: Industrial systems are increasingly connected to IT networks and the internet, expanding the attack surface.

 

Evolving Threats: Cyberattacks targeting OT are becoming more sophisticated and can have devastating real-world impacts.


Legacy Systems: Many OT environments rely on older technology with limited built-in security, making them easy targets.


Regulations: Growing government and industry regulations are mandating stronger OT security measures.

What are the biggest challenges in OT security?

Key OT security challenges include:

 

Limited Visibility: Many organizations lack a complete inventory of OT assets, making it difficult to identify and secure all potential vulnerabilities.


IT/OT Gap: Differences in culture and priorities between IT and OT teams can hinder collaboration and effective security.


Patching Difficulties: Outdated OT systems may not support regular security patches, leaving them vulnerable.


Skill Shortage: Specialized skills for understanding and managing OT security risks are in high demand.

What are best practices for strengthening OT security?

Essential best practices include:

 

Asset Identification: Develop a comprehensive inventory of all OT hardware and software.

 

Network Segmentation: Isolate OT networks from IT networks whenever possible to limit the impact of breaches.

 

Risk Assessments: Conduct regular risk assessments to identify and prioritize vulnerabilities.

 

Incident Response: Have a clear incident response plan for OT cyberattacks.

 

IT/OT Collaboration: Foster a culture of cooperation and shared responsibility for security.

What are some common OT security tools and technology?

Having the right tools is crucial for effective OT security. With increasing digitization, these tools play a pivotal role in safeguarding critical infrastructure. Essential OT tools and technologies include:


1. Asset Inventory: Tools that provide comprehensive visibility into all devices and systems within the OT environment.


2. Vulnerability Management and Risk Assessment: Solutions to identify weaknesses in OT systems and networks.


3. Patch Management: Tools to automate the process of deploying security patches.


4. Configuration Management: Tools to maintain control over OT system configurations.


5. OT/ICS SIEM (Security Information and Event Management): Systems for monitoring, detecting, and responding to security incidents.


6. Incident Response, Backup, and Restore Solutions: Incident coordination and data recovery tools.

Where can I find some OT security case studies?

You can find several OT security case studies in our resources section. They cover many of our solutions, and feature clients from several industries including chemical production, energy, power generation, and oil & gas. 

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