Unhackable OT Security Solutions

September 4, 2023

Achieve unparalleled protection with unhackable OT security solutions. Safeguard critical operational technology from cyber threats and ensure uninterrupted operations.

Security threats against critical OT networks have become ever more pressing, with cyber attacks having the potential to cause irreparable damage to industrial control systems. Yet most organizations lack the resources and expertise to implement OT cybersecurity measures on their own; instead, they depend on OT vendors for assistance.

1. Unidirectional Gateways at the Criticality Boundary

Unhackable OT Security refers to the combination of procedures and technologies designed to safeguard people, assets and information within an operational technology (OT) network from cyber threats. It has become an increasingly effective risk management strategy that integrates traditional physical security, disaster recovery and an IT network boundary protection framework into an overall risk management approach.

An effective security strategy must also consider the entire supply chain, which could include third parties vulnerable to hacking attacks. This is particularly pertinent to energy and utility providers that rely on secure supply chains to keep power flowing uninterrupted, and critical infrastructure companies that must ensure smooth running systems that protect public safety.

Implementing firewalls and NGFWs with properly configured ACLs are the primary way to mitigate such risks, protecting data by blocking malicious traffic while offering fine-grained control to block specific application signatures that exist outside OSI model layers 3 and 4. These devices help secure information by blocking malicious traffic as well as providing rules against specific app signatures that exist outside OSI model layers 3 and 4.

Although firewalls can be effective, they can still be breached. If an attacker managed to gain entry and rebooted a PLC controller of an utility system, it could have devastating repercussions for an nuclear power plant or another high-security facility.

To combat this threat, many OT networks incorporate unidirectional gateways – hardware-enforced non-routable communication technologies which use optical technology to provide secure channels between trusted and untrusted networks.

This approach is ideal for deploying gateways at criticality boundaries and protecting against attacks like Man in the Middle or DoS (Denial of Service). However, data diodes may not always be appropriate due to lacking certain features needed by IT-OT connections.

Due to these reasons, any comprehensive security strategy must include data inspection as part of its strategy. Zero-trust gateways offer additional solutions by only permitting specific control data through. In addition, data inspection capabilities enable real-time monitoring.

Unidirectional gateways at criticality boundaries are vital for protecting against ransomware attacks that infiltrate IT networks and isolate operational users – an imminent risk to many utilities that can result in production outages, physical consequences and other negative results.

2. Unidirectional Gateways at the IT-to-Internet Boundary

Unidirectional gateways are hardware cybersecurity solutions designed to allow one-way information transfer between network domains. While traditionally deployed within high-security environments to protect information or critical digital systems from cyber attacks, more recently these tools are being employed as one-way communications tools between networks connected to the Internet.

Modern unidirectional security gateways use assured delivery mechanisms to overcome transmission reliability issues and overruns, creating non-routable one-way data transfers between source and destination networks with complete electrical separation between them and creating non-routable, one-way transfers that cannot be overrun.

At a time of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and digitization, unidirectional gateways have become an essential component of Unhackable OT Security. These devices facilitate integration between IT and OT networks while protecting industrial control and safety systems against cyber sabotage.

These gateways can safeguard OT infrastructure against various cyber threats, including nation-state cyberattacks that aim to disable or disrupt specific facilities. Furthermore, these gateways enable organizations to continue with normal operations by permitting access to operational data without jeopardizing security.

Since cyber threats continue to increase, critical infrastructure organizations are turning more frequently to unidirectional security gateways as a defense mechanism against potential attacks that could compromise their assets, networks and systems. They can also assist organizations with meeting compliance requirements associated with major security incidents against critical infrastructures such as NERC CIP, NRC 5.71 or CFATS requirements.

Convergence between IT and OT networks has led to an increase in cyber attacks on industrial infrastructures. These attacks, known as advanced persistent threats (APTs), aim to disrupt critical operations by targeting industrial systems with APTs that attempt to prevent their functioning properly.

OT systems are an integral component of manufacturing and production equipment that makes our lives possible; without proper security protections in place to safeguard them, hackers can gain entry and take over your industrial systems to gain access to vital assets that could threaten society as we know it.

3. Unidirectional Gateways at the OT-to-OT Boundary

Unidirectional gateways or data diodes have long been utilized in high-security environments to defend networks containing critical systems against attacks. This technology has been adopted by defence and intelligence agencies, nuclear power plants, and other industrial facilities.

Historically, boundary devices were implemented using software running on hardened versions of mainstream operating systems; however, today many boundary devices are hardware based.

Software may offer higher protection levels; this is particularly relevant at OT boundaries where these devices often serve as the only link from IT to OT.

Hardware-based unidirectional gateways such as EdgeIPS 103 and Waterfall’s FLIP products ensure that information can only travel across boundaries via secure connections, thus protecting safety systems against cyber-attackers attempting to exploit vulnerabilities in either IT or OT systems which would lead to safety system breaches.

As well, our clients can benefit from having a very precise specification of what messages can be sent through the device – providing for a very flexible and customizable solution.

Data diodes from our portfolio can also help enforce red/black separation, guaranteeing that no link from IT to OT ever passes across the electronic air gap between networks – making this solution especially suitable for connecting safety systems to business-critical networks.

For example, when extracting historical XML data from an OT network for analysis in an IT network, data diodes provide an efficient solution. Simply specifying that only those messages tagged with relevant security labels will be allowed through, eliminating any extraneous “extra XML”.

Software boundary devices exist as well, like M-Guard which uses stateless and semantic checks to secure unidirectional flow of XML messages. This approach provides security benefits similar to hardware data diodes without needing custom chips – however it also has limitations such as difficulty specifying timing and ordering of checks resulting in complex rules which might lead to issues.

4. Unidirectional Gateways at the OT-to-Cloud Boundary

Operational Technology (OT) world is an extremely complex environment that houses and controls systems crucial to modern life. Security engineers in this realm have the responsibility of upholding, protecting and safeguarding these critical safety systems, devices, networks and devices – evidenced by media headlines like Ukraine Power Grid Attack or cyber-attack against German Steel Mill where serious damages were sustained as examples.

Unhackable OT Security can be achieved using hardware-enforced unidirectional gateways that bridge criticality gaps between control and safety networks, according to industry standards and some jurisdictional requirements. This method has proven itself as the gold standard.

Unidirectional gateways utilize data diodes as their physical basis, protecting confidentiality by transmitting information only in one direction. Furthermore, these gateways support software which replicates servers and emulates devices for handshaking between protocols as required by Waterfall Security Solutions’ Andrew Ginter.

Ginter pointed out that gateways make it more challenging for hackers to alter data, alter configurations or add new commands, as well as limiting malware’s ability to communicate with external command and control servers.

Morlando pointed out that unidirectional gateways are quick, simple, and reliable in setting up and operation, making them essential components of engineering cybersecurity programs as they give industrial networks visibility into ICS devices and processes.

Morlando explained that gateways also help mitigate exfiltration risks by restricting malicious actors from altering data, changing settings or adding new commands. They can also enhance compliance by providing real-time access to operational data without jeopardizing security.

Utilizing this technology, industrial networks can easily connect to the cloud using one network interface and secure link. The connection is managed through sending and receiving software agents that predefine information transference processes.

As well as protecting against exfiltration and restricting malware’s communication with external command-and-control servers, this link offers encryption and authentication features that ensure adequate protection in ICS environments where traditional firewalls simply can’t provide enough safeguarding.

Ammar Fakhruddin


Ammar brings in 18 years of experience in strategic solutions and product development in Public Sector, Oil & Gas and Healthcare organizations. He loves solving complex real world business and data problems by bringing in leading-edge solutions that are cost effective, improve customer and employee experience. At Propelex he focuses on helping businesses achieve digital excellence using Smart Data & Cybersecurity solutions.

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