SCADA, Cybersecurity, OT, Moving Target Defense

OT Systems: How to Stay Productive and Vigilant

Ian Schmertzler
13 December, 2021 4 Min read

Ian Schmertzler from Dispel and Alan Hudson from VTScada by Trihedral spoke at the SANS Industrial Solutions Forum in September, 2021. Below is a summary of that talk.

Motivation for OT Systems

CISOs and Senior Network Security Architects (people with titles that should allow them to drive change) from household name firms in consumer goods, food and beverage, building management, upstream, midstream, and downstream ONG, dry bulk shipping, fishing, hydro, mining, water, and wastewater have been reporting decision loops of over 18 months for cyber resilience initiatives.

This cycle time has been wreaking havoc. To give a few stories from SANS attendees:

  • A manufacturer was ransomed four times through the same exploit in the year it took the cybersecurity team to push a secure remote access initiative through procurement;
  • The network security architect for a city transferred out from the electrical distribution group after trying unsuccessfully for 15 months to get his colleagues to attend a meeting on aligning with baseline cyber resilience standards;
  • The cyber group at a mining conglomerate quit after three years of having every one of their security initiative blocked by upper management.

The ICS cyber community needs an effective, repeatable approach to remain productive in OT settings. 

What To Do Tomorrow

  • Get involved in the selection and retention of Operational Technology products within your teams.
  • Encourage Operations participation while selecting cybersecurity products.
  • Cut out formalities in your written and verbal exchanges.
  • Share stories to communicate.

What Happens and Why

Theoretical Level

Cybersecurity and Operations are not separate undertakings. They directly impact one another. The reason why they have fallen into separate specialties is that both are complicated. That does not mean you can't develop a healthy understanding of what the other team is doing over a few hours of conversation. Achieve that, and work to ensure the other side achieves it as well, and you will find yourselves working towards the same purpose.

Practical Level

You start to think about the things Operations cares about with OT settings, and they start to think about the things you care about. The actionable support works because they are simple and they push that collaboration along.


We worked on the problem of a fictional company with numerous OT networks of various ages and configurations. To begin with, we worked things from the perspective of a cybersecurity officer joining in the selection of a SCADA system.

To assist in this effort, we brought in a brave friend: Alan Hudson from VTScada by Trihedral. For the avoidance of doubt, there was/is no commercial relationship between Trihedral (or, for that matter, their parent company, Delta Electronics) and Dispel. 

OT Settings Note:

SCADA providers are typically perceived by OT cyber professionals as the enemy: some systems pushed by salespeople who don’t know NIST 800-160 v2, 800-171, 800-172, 800-53, or IEC 62443-3 from a telephone number but are quite adept at boxing out the cyber team and selling to Operations based upon usability features.

When something gets sold to Operations and the OT Cyber team has to veto it, you create a relationship problem that pits internal groups against one another. This is not an example of the often referenced “IT<>OT Divide” but, rather, a case of an OT<>Operator Divide, and that is far more personal for many SANS attendees.

Most SCADA providers, then, would be insane to wander into a room with over 130 cyber professionals. What makes VTScada different is: (1) they architected their software such that it can be set up to meet the standards without making life miserable for either Ops or Cyber; and (2) they go out of their way to teach their customers about cyber resilience.

Back to the Story

75% of the purchase processes Alan had worked through in the preceding month had not involved a single cyber participant. Together, sharing considerations a cyber person might bring to the table using diagrams and terminology people working in Operations would readily understand.

Begin your meetings with Ops or Management by providing a walkthrough of the Purdue Model. It takes only 2 to 3 minutes, and it will ensure everyone is oriented. For a pre-formatted Purdue Model to use in such a meeting, go here:

A Generalized Purdue Model Diagram Showing A Remote Access Connection

Points to convey while working on the problem of a SCADA system:

  • Modularity: Is it one machine sitting on Level 3, or is it an agglomeration of subsystems dispersed over Levels 2, 3, and 3.5? In either case, how can you manage this?
  • Reach: Is the solution getting to all of the equipment it needs to reach? Just asking that question will help you develop a solid understanding of the assets that need to be networked together.
  • Redundancy: Can you create three or more geographically distinct mirrors of the system, or did they code it so you can only run one mirror?
  • Code Base Responsibility: There is a sustainment distinction between a product that makes Operators code their own interfaces versus one that gives Operators the ability to design their own interfaces from pre-built, pre-vetted components.
  • Contract: Ask to see the SCADA provider's contract before bothering to get a demonstration of the system. If the contract says it's not for use in business-critical, OT settings, your systems should not depend on it.

The above points are not cyber-specific, but they are characteristics that will substantially reduce the noise in the search process. Next, here is how to architect a resilient network in and around the OT System, and what Operations should bring to the table.

  • Templating and Tempo: Request and response forms need to be standardized if one is to minimize admin overhead and, in turn, connection backlogs. Remember the last time you were on hold for 20 minutes? People working in Operations hate that too.
  • Interface Standardization: If you are in Operations, take the time to describe the load-outs your teams need for different tasks. Cyber needs to know about the need to task-specific loadouts so that they can look for solutions that provide customized workstations.
  • Inventory Management of Disposable Components: Yes, disposable components need to cycle after use, but you need an inventory of fresh components on hand to prevent a gap in service access.

It was at this point that the audience took (commandeered) the talk in the direction of 800-171 secure enclave scenarios. Down-select early in the process for SCADA systems that work well within topologically segmented environments, handle private certificate authorities, and interface with project-specific clocks.

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Take the next step with Dispel

Invite your colleagues to learn proactive efforts, which will spark collaboration.  Then connect with a trusted provider like Dispel that can offer strong cybersecurity infrastructure for your organization.