Oct 30, 2023
4 min read

Why Deploying Active Directory in Your OT Environment Can Be a Costly Mistake

Written By

Josh Martin

For industrial enterprises, operational technology (OT) plays a pivotal role in managing and controlling critical processes. OT environments are distinct from traditional IT systems, and they come with unique challenges and requirements.  

One controversial topic within the OT realm is the deployment of Active Directory (AD), a common IT technology. Some may argue that integrating AD into OT environments can streamline management, but there are several compelling reasons why industrial organizations should think twice before making this move. 

9 Dangers of Integrating Active Directory into an OT Environment 

1. Security Risks 

One of the primary concerns with deploying AD in an OT environment is the heightened security risk. OT systems often operate in isolated, air-gapped networks, designed to minimize the potential for cyberattacks. AD, by significant contrast, is explicitly designed for network communication. Introducing AD into an OT environment thus opens a potential pathway for cyberattacks to penetrate what should be a highly secure area. 

2. Complexity and Compatibility 

OT systems typically rely on proprietary and legacy equipment that is simply not designed to integrate seamlessly with modern IT technologies. AD integration can create compatibility issues, leading to downtime, system instability, and increased complexity in managing and maintaining the OT environment. 

3. Unauthorized Access

The complexity of AD can lead to misconfigurations or human errors that unintentionally grant unauthorized personnel access to critical OT systems. Even more so than in the world of IT, unauthorized access to OT environments can results in dire consequences, including production disruptions, equipment damage, and threats to human and environmental safety.  

4. Patching and Updates

OT systems require meticulous management, with strict change control processes in place to avoid downtime or safety risks. AD, with its frequent updates and patches, can disrupt the stability of the OT environment. Updating AD components may inadvertently affect OT systems, which often cannot afford even a short about of downtime. 

5. Increased Attack Surface

Deploying AD can significantly increase the attack surface of the OT environment, as AD servers become attractive targets for potential attackers. If successful in breaching the system, these attackers could gain control over a wide range of OT equipment devices. Again, the inherent interconnectedness of AD stands in stark contrast to the principle of isolation, which is crucial to limiting the spread of OT-targeting threats. 

6. Lack of IT Expertise

OT and IT professionals have distinct skill sets. The IT team may not fully understand the intricacies of OT systems, leading to misconfigurations and security vulnerabilities. This disconnect can make it challenging to effectively secure an AD/OT integration. 

7. Compliance Challenges

OT environments are subject to stringent industry regulations and compliance standards. Integrating AD can make it difficult to maintain compliance and may lead to regulatory violations, resulting in fines and reputational damage. 

8. Data Integrity

OT systems rely on real-time data for decision-making, and any disruptions or unauthorized access to this data can have serious repercussions. AD integration could introduce vulnerabilities that compromise the integrity of incoming data, leading to incorrect decisions and potential safety issues. 

9. Cost and Resources

The deployment of AD in an OT environment is not a one-time project; it requires ongoing resources for maintenance, updates, and security. This can strain an organization's budget and divert resources away from other crucial initiatives within the OT environment. 

Alternatives to Active Directory 

Rather than deploying AD in their OT environment, organizations should explore purpose-built solutions designed to meet the specific requirements and challenges of OT environments. One such product is Cyolo, which provides the necessary access control and user management features without the security and complexity risks associated with AD. 

In conclusion, deploying Active Directory within an OT environment is a high-stakes decision that industrial organizations should approach with caution. The security risks, added complexity, and potential for disruptions can far outweigh the perceived benefits of centralized user management. It is imperative that organizations prioritize the security and stability of their OT systems, and solutions other than AD may be better suited to the distinctive requirements of these environments. Maintaining the integrity, availability, and security of critical processes is paramount in the world of industrial organizations, and deploying AD within the OT environment may not align with this vital objective.  

Josh Martin


Josh Martin is a security professional who told himself he'd never work in security. With close to 5 years in the tech industry across Support, Product Marketing, Sales Enablement, and Sales Engineering, Josh has a unique perspective into how technical challenges can impact larger business goals and how to craft unique solutions to solve real world problems. Josh joined Cyolo in 2021 and prior worked at Zscaler, Duo Security, and Cisco.

Outside of Cyolo, Josh spends his time outdoors - hiking, camping, kayaking, or whatever new hobby he's trying out for the week. Or, you can find him tirelessly automating things that do NOT need to be automated in his home at the expense of his partner. Josh lives in North Carolina, USA.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter