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Opportunities Around Operational Technology
Sometimes businesses will tell MSPs to, “not worry about operational technology on the network.” But there is a way to add value.
If you have ever had a manufacturing company as a client or prospect, then more than likely you have run into this situation:
“You don’t have to do anything with these computers. They run our machines.”
“I don’t want any changes being made to anything on the shop floor.”
“It took us a long time to get all that stuff to work right together, and I don’t want anything to mess that up.”
“Joe is the one that set all that up, so he’ll take care of that part.”
Only one of these statements uncovers the reasons why the client or prospect does not want you to be involved with the shop network.
In many cases, the reason for the client’s distancing is that manufacturing equipment does have to be set up a certain way and that could have taken them a long time to set it up. And if one thing changes, it could change the output and that could get expensive quickly.
Another part of it can be that if only one person knows everything about the shop network, it is reasonable to assume that person is the only one authorized to make changes because they know, or at least can theorize, how changes will affect the system overall.
These concerns are certainly valid, but it does not mean the correct answer is for the integrator or MSP to be completely hands off when it comes to operational technology products.
So, the challenge becomes how to convince the business owner to let you be involved and how do you show value when they agree.
Acknowledging Issues with operational technology
The first thing you need to do is have a conversation about why they don’t want you to touch that part of the network. This might seem like an oversimplification, but it is honestly step one.
Having this conversation accomplishes two goals:
First, it signals to the decision-maker that they are having a conversation about this and they are at least emotionally open to talking about it.
This is a big step in the right direction because a strong possibility exists that all the other integrators and MSPs they have talked to in the past have heard, “Don’t touch these machines” and because they were used to that, the MSP just said okay and moved on.
By you having a conversation about the operational network, you’ve already gotten them to take a step further than they previously have, and you have set yourself apart from companies they have worked with in the past.
The second thing a conversation does is it uncovers details and motivations for why the business owner wants you to be hands off. There may be reasons you would never know about unless you have a discussion. Consequently, you need to ask the questions.
Find out more about the story. You might end up with the owner saying something along the lines of, “Every time we have to reboot, it takes forever to get the machines back online.”
Meanwhile, you know there are probably some adjustments you can make that can actually reduce the number of times they have to reboot and reduce the amount of time it takes to complete a reboot.
The owner sometimes thinks from a perspective of I don’t want things to get any worse, while as an IT professional, you are thinking from a mindset of what can be done to make this better.
Once you’ve had a discussion and you’ve gathered preliminary information, tell the business owner that you understand they do not want any changes to be made and you would like to do a review of that part of the network so you can document some notes and at least understand that part of the network.
If you discover something from an operational or security standpoint that the business owner needs to be aware of, you’ll let him or her know.
Things to Look For
When you begin your review, document everything.
It’s surprising how many times a client will say, “Don’t touch this part of the network” but when something crashes, they ask you to take a look at it. Therefore, creating documentation early on may help you later. But also, look for opportunities.
Your goal isn’t just to add endpoints to your service contract; your goal is to be helpful and show value in areas where the decision-maker didn’t think you could. You want to take yourself out of the box they have put you in.
Power Protection: Unless your client or prospect has a high level of operational maturity and has proactively invested in the details of their operation, you will undoubtedly find some equipment that is not on any sort of power protection.
That includes the machines themselves and the computers that run them.
All computer equipment should be on a battery backup UPS, but I have walked through shops and seen plenty that are not. When it comes to the actual manufacturing machines, sometimes they have their own surge protection built in, but some do not.
I had a prospect complain to me that there were three different lightning storms when they got hit and each time there was a particular part in a machine that would get fried and have to be replaced.
Industrial power protection is available. Some units provide surge protection for select machines, others provide protection for a whole circuit panel, and others can provide uninterrupted power for the manufacturing machines if the client is willing to make the investment.
Look at what they have and share with the decision-maker what they could be doing.
Computer OS Versions: Sometimes the computers that run the machines can be very old, and in some cases, there may be nothing you can do about it. There are situations when the machine supplier will tell you, “This will only run on XP. You can’t upgrade it.”
If that’s the case, you are stuck unless the owner wants to buy a different machine.
However, there are times when it can be upgraded and should be upgraded. Sometimes machine suppliers will release firmware versions that are only compatible with a newer OS—and sometimes the client doesn’t want to do upgrades because it costs too much or there would be downtime.
But what the client may not be considering is that if they fall too far behind, the version they have will not be supported anymore.
Your job is to bring up concerns like that to the client. This may require you to do some digging, but that just means you are being an effective vendor management specialist and are providing more value than what the client thought you could.
Network Segmentation: Because of old operating systems, a lack of updates, and often times no antivirus on the shop computers, it is imperative that the operations network is segmented from the rest of the network.
Find out how things are connected and if there is physical or logical separation. The front network could look like Fort Knox, but if Fort Knox leaves a window open, it’s a problem. Analyze the segmentation carefully because it can make a big difference.
Physical PC Protection: Some computers that run the machines will be in metal cabinets behind plexiglass or other types of barriers. That’s good. But there are plenty of computers that will be on the floor or on a cart next to a machine and remain exposed to the environment.
Depending on the shop, the air can contain droplets of oil, hydraulic fluid, metal shavings, dust, and more. If those contaminants get pulled inside of computers due to vents or fans, it can wreak havoc.
I had a new client tell me their shop computers lasted about two years before they had to be replaced. I felt bad for him because he didn’t know and no one ever told him; there are companies that make filter covers that slide over the top of computers.
They come in different sizes, are made from a breathable material so the computer can get airflow and not overheat, and they filter out particulates and oils so it preserves the life expectancy of the computer.
They cost about $20 and depending on how dirty the environment is, they can last up to about a year before needing to be replaced.
Once I told the business owner about them and we started using them, their PC replacement schedule dropped to once every four to five years.
A small investment can make a significant ROI for your client, and problem-solving like this is what will make your prospect or client trust you with their operations network.
And don’t forget to talk to Joe. Remember that one guy who knows everything about the operations network? That person is going to be important. They can give you insights and history you wouldn’t otherwise learn about.
And of course, this is his baby, so if you are going to be recommending changes, you will want him on your side. If possible, get as much buy-in as you can from that key player before presenting to the business owner.
Time to Present
You’ve heard the concerns about the network, you’ve gotten the decision-maker to at least warm up to the idea of you having some input, you’ve done your homework, and hopefully gotten some support from that one person who knows more about it than anyone else.
Now it’s time to present your findings to the business owner.
Keep in mind, in this type of situation the business owner is probably skittish about letting anyone make changes, so it is not a done deal. If you walk in with quotes and proposals at this point, it probably won’t happen.
You are sharing with the business owner some points of interest that you found that may need to be addressed. Talk about what you found and what they mean to the company, the equipment, operations, productivity and protection of investment. The idea is to share what you discovered.
Give the decision-maker time to ask questions and dig a little deeper into the topics that are most interesting to them.
Eventually, the conversation will come around to, “How would we go about fixing that?” And you can discuss the ideas you have.
Ultimately you will get the question, “How much would something like that cost?” You can either give them a range, or be non-committal, that part is up to you, but do not pull out a quote and hand it to them because then you have just changed the conversation to a sales call.
Tell your client that if X is something they are interested in, you can put together some numbers.
Once they have said, “Yeah, go ahead and do that and let me know what you come up with,” then you have the green light to put together a quote for them. When you ultimately review the quote or proposal with your client, they will be expecting it and will be much more receptive.
Throughout the whole process, remember, you are not just adding services – you are looking for ways to add value, build trust, and get your client to think of you as more than just what they originally asked you to do.
About the author: Scott Ford is the director of operations at Pronesis Technology Group. He has been a member of The ASCII Group since 2018.Reprinted with permission, courtesy Commercial Integrator