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Blog / 6 min read

Key Limitations of IT-Centric Remote Access Solutions in OT

Pallavi Singh
/ November 2nd, 2023
IT-Centric Remote Access

The lines between Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) are blurring in today's interconnected world. Remote access to OT environments is no longer just a convenience; it's a necessity. Yet, the rush to connect often leads organizations down a risky path—leveraging traditional IT-centric solutions like virtual private networks (VPNs), jump boxes, etc., for OT remote access. While these types of solutions are generally well-suited for IT environments, they tend to be a square peg for a round hole when applied to OT.

What are IT-Centric Remote Access Solutions?

IT-centric remote access solutions are designed to provide externally located users with access to resources within an organization's internal network. Common types include:

  • Virtual Private Networks (VPNs): While VPNs provide encrypted connections between remote users and an organization's internal network, they are not inherently designed for OT environments. Their inability to cater to OT's distinct configurations and protocols can result in extended user onboarding times. Moreover, this often necessitates enhanced collaboration and coordination between IT and OT teams to address these discrepancies.

  • Jump Boxes: These are intermediary computers that administrators use to access other machines within a network. In IT environments, they streamline administrative tasks. However, in OT settings, their centralized nature can become a bottleneck, disrupting time-sensitive operations and potentially posing a single point of failure.

  • Remote Desktop Protocols (RDPs): While these conveniently allow users to access another computer over a network in IT settings, they also tend to introduce latency in OT settings. This is problematic for real-time processes. Additionally, they have been a notable target for cyber-attacks, posing significant security risks in OT environments.

While these and similar types of IT-centric remote access solutions offer connectivity features, their adaptation in OT environments can be problematic (and, in many cases, downright risky) due to fundamental mismatches with system design, priority, and protocol requirements of OT.

We will explore the security implications of these mismatches shortly, but first, let's delve deeper to understand the IT vs. OT landscape, how demands for OT remote access are evolving, and why IT-centric solutions fall short in this growing ecosystem.

IT vs. OT: Spotting the Mismatch

Traditional IT remote access solutions, which are generally well-suited for securing IT environments, often fall short in meeting distinctive configurations and protocols of OT environments. These solutions primarily focus on ensuring data confidentiality, integrity, and availability but tend to falter when faced with OT's unique configurations and protocols. This disparity not only introduces operational inefficiencies but also broadens the scope of cyber-attacks, resulting in missed threats that can significantly delay incident response times and increase the Mean-Time-To-Respond (MTTR). Let’s understand the complexities of how this mismatch impacts the OT environment.

Protecting critical systems

In the OT environment, safeguarding critical systems relies on prioritizing system availability, integrity, and safety. This requires a proactive approach to prevent failures and ensure continuous operations. OT environments are closely connected to the physical world, regulating infrastructure and industrial processes crucial for safety and stability. Unlike IT environments, any missed threats in OT settings can potentially lead to substantial operational delays and critical risks to safety.

Complex configuration, change management & access needs

OT setups demand specialized configurations that integrate smoothly with specific devices and processes, requiring machine-level access and direct control over designated devices. Unfortunately, IT-centric solutions are not equipped to handle the complexities and specifics of OT configurations and protocols, often leading to delays in user onboarding and necessitating coordination with IT teams for user setups and firewall adjustments. This not only disrupts production but also decreases operational efficiency, heightening the necessity for tailored solutions that can provide faster access to OT sites while offering insightful data on user activities and remote connections.

Scalability & performance

While IT solutions are designed with scalability for generic expansion, they often encounter latency issues in OT environments, affecting real-time responses and reliability. Particularly in scenarios such as remote monitoring of oil rigs or autonomous vehicle coordination in mining operations, the increased latency and potential for disruption can significantly hinder operational efficiency. This is especially evident when the scaling of autonomous vehicle operations is considered; an IT-centric approach might initially offer more efficient central management. However, the resultant increase in complexity and data volume can overburden satellite communications, compromising real-time coordination.

In contrast, OT systems emphasize a scalability model to meet the demands of modern industrial operations. Whether ensuring fast-paced data exchanges in wind farm maintenance or real-time responsiveness in security surveillance systems, the focus is invariably on incorporating localized communication networks and processing capabilities. This emphasis ensures that as operations grow in scale, the performance and reliability remain uncompromised, ensuring smooth and disruption-free operations across various OT use cases.

Security and Control Challenges: How IT Tools Expand the OT Attack Surface

The misuse of IT tools in OT settings escalates security and control challenges significantly. The limited visibility these tools offer into remote connections exacerbates the problem, hindering OT administrators from gaining clear insights into user activities and increasing the possibility of missed threats. Moreover, violating standard OT architectural best practices, possibly conflicting with the Purdue Model, further amplifies risks such as privilege escalation, lateral movement, and unintentional errors, thereby escalating critical OT asset exposure.

Amplifies risks: how IT solutions violate the Purdue Model

Using IT solutions in OT environments increases the potential for a range of risks, including unauthorized access, malware introduction, and SCADA system tampering, potentially causing operational disruptions and system failures. These threat vectors can manifest at various levels, breaking the standard barriers upheld by the Purdue Model and leading to critical environment exposures. The diagram below illustrates challenges and risks at each level caused by a remote user using IT-centric solutions like VPN, Jump Boxes, Team Viewer, Citrix, etc. 

Image: Challenges and risks of the IT and OT mismatch. How IT solutions violate the Purdue Model 

To mitigate these profound repercussions, it is of utmost importance to develop specialized solutions that align with the unique demands and security considerations of the OT landscape. Recognizing and addressing these inconsistencies and challenges will substantially foster a more secure and efficient operational future. With the guidance and regulations from global regulators, organizations are now in a position to pave the way for remote access solutions attuned to the specific needs and demands of the evolving OT environment.

Conclusion

The increasingly interconnected world of IT and OT brings with it both immense opportunities and significant challenges. The rapid adoption of IT-centric remote access solutions in OT environments has highlighted a pressing concern: the mismatch between IT solutions and the specific needs of OT environments. The vulnerabilities, inefficiencies, and potential risks that arise from this mismatch are alarming and demand urgent attention. While IT solutions prioritize data security and scalability in a generic sense, OT environments require specialized solutions that address their unique configurations, protocols, and safety requirements. Leveraging IT solutions in OT settings can amplify security threats, hinder operational efficiency, and compromise safety.

As the world moves towards greater industrial digitization, redefining our approach to OT remote access is crucial. Organizations must transition from the one-size-fits-all IT-centric mindset to bespoke OT-centric solutions catering to the distinctive demands of OT environments. By aligning with global regulations and embracing OT-focused strategies, businesses can not only protect their critical assets but also ensure smoother, more efficient operations in an increasingly digital era.

To further understand the risks and challenges of utilizing IT-centric solutions in OT environments, make sure to check out our on-demand webinar: "Navigating the Risks of IT-Centric Remote Access Solutions in OT Environments." This webinar provides insights and strategies to navigate the complex landscape of OT remote access with security and efficiency.

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