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Wed 22 Dec 2004 04:00 AM

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Slick operators

The network needs of the oil & gas industry have always presented serious challenges to businesses in the region. Chief among these is ensuring cost effective and reliable data links between widely dispersed offices.

|~|Bilal-Habash,-NDC_m.jpg|~|“We had three criteria. The solution had to be able to share a remote network with clients and segregate traffic without overlap. It also had to be able to prioritise applications and provide class of service, giving, for example, ERP traffic priority over e-mails for certain users. Thirdly, it had to be able to speed up the network by utilising bandwidth more efficiently.” - Bilal Hibash, senior network & telecom engineer at NDC|~|The oil & gas industry is not like any other business. Despite efforts by regional governments to diversify, it still occupies a special role in the regional economy. This unique status is mirrored by very particular networking requirements. Oil & gas businesses typically have widely dispersed offices and this places great emphasis on wide area network (WAN) bandwidth.

As the applications used by the oil & gas industry have grown in sophistication in recent years, network bandwidth has been squeezed creating frustration in the enterprise and pushing up costs as companies have invested in fatter pipes.

This was the option chosen by BG Tunisia in its March 2004 implementation of communications technology for its offshore facilities. BG Tunisia had been using an analogue radio connection between the Miskar platform and the coast. This had a maximum data throughput of 9.6Kbit/s, meaning data traveled slowly and frequently had to be re-sent. The gas field operator decided to boost speeds by investing in a solution from 4RF Communications, which brought the ability to handle real-time PBX telephony and video communications.

“The distances involved and the system installation presented a tough challenge for any transmission system.

The region also has difficult atmospheric conditions,” says Alex Tollenaar, chief systems engineer, 4RF Communications.

The environmental conditions presented several challenges such as that the gas platform is in continuous motion. This meant the radio solution had to be able to cope with the continual movement of the sea. To solve this and to simplify the engineering task, 4RF deployed a three-hop sea path solution to the Miskar platform, using another platform and an island for repeater points. The solutions provider used its Aprisa SE point-to-point digital microwave radio transmission system to provide the three maritime hops and connect to the onshore station at Guebiba Tower, as well as to the Hannibal plant and the public telephone exchange. The Aprisa solution allows the convergence of voice, data and video traffic on to a common narrowband RF channel.

Telephony and video traffic is carried using fractional E1 interfaces, while the data traffic is carried over a 256kbit/s Ethernet interface. However, VSAT vendors claim that using microwave technology over long distances can lead to delay.

“We’ve had success in the oil and gas industry with companies that have been dissatisfied with microwave technology,” says Winston Pereira, director of technical operations at Qatar-based systems integrator AIC. “If the head office is located far away from the rigs too many repeaters are used and this causes delay. VSAT is a more cost effective, one hop connection,” he adds.

Line of sight, free space optics (FSO) links are another possibility and FSO vendor PAV has recently scored considerable success with Saudi Aramco. However, line of sight links are designed specifically for short distances and companies rely on other technologies for longer hops.

Whatever technology is deployed, buying more is only one solution to the bandwidth problem. Many vendors are pushing the WAN optimisation option and holding out the juicy carrot of cost savings.

Indeed, research firm IDC estimates the market for WAN optimisation management products will grow from US$236 million this year to US$427 million by 2008, representing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 16%.

“The oil & gas industry is characterised by large file transfer requirements,” says Steven Wastie, international marketing director at Peribit Networks.

“This characteristic combined with low speed (often via satellite) connectivity presents a real business and networking challenge which only an integrated optimisation solution can address,” he adds.

Peribit is one of a number of companies that specialise in WAN optimisation. The key requirement here is to eliminate redundant information before it gets sent from the enterprise to the WAN. The devices sit typically between that local area network (LAN) and the router and use algorithms to analyse IP packets traversing the network.

The compression specialists have had considerable success in the region in general and in oil & gas industry in the particular. The UAE’s National Drilling Company (NDC) recently made an investment in Peribit devices in a bid to increase the efficiency of its WAN traffic. The oil & gas firm, which has a number of remote offices including rigs, bought in excess of 20 Peribit SR20s, which support up to five remote connections and transmission speeds from 64Kbyte/s to 2Mbyte/s. These sequence reducers were installed in the rigs and remote offices. The firm also acquired an SR55 for the head office, which supports up to 120 remote connections and transmission speeds from 256Kbyte/s to 20Mbyte/s. NDC made an investment in the region of US$250,000.

NDC decided on a WAN optimisation strategy in response to lack lustre performance from its previous WAN links. The firm also wanted to move to more bandwidth intensive applications, using an IP telephony solution from Cisco and a PolyCom video-conferencing system.

“Our rig managers were getting frustrated when they were trying to update their e-mail and finding it too slow,” says Bilal Hibash, senior network & telecom engineer at NDC.

“We were also getting requests from drilling team managers who need to communicate with the rigs. It’s a money saver for them to be able to communicate faster. We also wanted to give the head office the chance to make real time decisions by allowing them to read data over the internet at wireline speeds,” he adds.

NDC had an 8Kbyte/s VSAT link and to run the applications it wanted it had a choice between upgrading to 64Kbyte/s or investing in compression and WAN optimisation technology to make the most of existing bandwidth. After weighing up the pros and cons of both approaches, NDC decided to explore WAN optimisation further by piloting solutions from Peribit, SwanLabs and Packeteer. As VSAT links present a considerable challenge in terms of administration, stability and speed, NDC wanted to be sure it had the right solution.

“We had three criteria,” says Habash. “The solution had to be able to share a remote network with clients and segregate traffic without overlap. It also had to be able to prioritise applications and provide class of service, giving, for example, ERP traffic priority over e-mails for certain users. Thirdly, it had to be able to speed up the network by utilising bandwidth more efficiently,” he explains.

The implementation went live in May after taking two months to set up and NDC has seen immediate benefits with reduced monthly transmission costs. Other knock-on benefits include reduced travel expenses as mangers can opt to communicate using videoconferencing rather than making visits to the rigs and remote offices. In terms of management, NDC looks after each device individually at present, although it plans to invest in Peribit’s Periscope CMS (central management system), which will simplify administration, particularly the distribution of firmware updates.

As the oil & gas industry turns on to new and more sophisticated applications to add to its business effectiveness, WAN bandwidth is likely to become an even more scarce resource. This pressure is not only coming from the applications side however. As oil & gas companies contemplate server centralisation, this issue will also have a knock-on effect on WAN bandwidth. While there are arguments for and against server centralisation, it is undoubtedly a particularly important dilemma for the oil & gas industry based IT manager, given the typically spread out nature of company locations. It can be a nightmare to manage hundreds of geographically scattered servers. Centralising them into a few locations brings considerable economies of scale, plus tighter control, more reliable backups and more effective disaster recovery.

Ashraf El Arabaty, product marketing manager of enterprise products for Fujistu Siemens sees significant demand for server centralisation from the oil & gas business in the region.

“The fragmented nature of IT infrastructure and the difficulty communicating across geographical or organisational areas are a major concern today. As organisations expand, they often create islands of different domains, communities and platforms for different groups of physicists, geophysicists, modelers and engineers,” says El Arabaty.

“Fujistu Siemens sees the development of comprehensive, versatile and well aligned information systems as a key, strategic vehicle,” he adds.

If a company goes down the server centralisation route it will increase WAN traffic and with WAN links much more expensive than LAN connections, there is the potential for spiraling costs. This makes a fat pipe a necessity, but this alone may not be enough. It may be necessary for a company to deploy WAN optimisation techniques such as those from Peribit, Packeteer and Compuware.

“For organisations contemplating server centralisation, prudence dictates that they first apply WAN optimisation. This entails profiling individual applications to see how each will be affected by deployment over the WAN,” says Michael Allen, EMEA director of performance solutions for Compuware.

“Enterprises should look at WAN links and the way they connect users to servers, analyse the application itself together with each of its end-user transaction types, and study how users interact with these transactions. They should also explore how the application is to be deployed in terms of the locations and numbers of clients versus data centre activity at various times of the day,” he adds.

Leaving aside server centralisation and its effects on WAN bandwidth, consolidation of another type is very important in the oil & gas industry. With many oil & gas companies prime technology movers they often built up an infrastructure before the telcos could provide enterprise scale data services. This means the oil & gas companies have multiple solutions and are keen to converge them to one infrastructure.

“There are lots of systems, such as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, which is used to physically monitor the environment at plants,” says Ghazi Atallah, general manager of Cisco Middle East. “Firms are looking to converge these to IP, as it will reduce costs and provide the flexibility to introduce new applications,” he adds.

Moving to installation and support, while these are key in any network implementation, arguably they are more so in the oil & gas industry. Building networks across many locations, not to mention on rigs, places considerable challenges in front of systems integrators. As well as the business requirements specific to the industry, the harsh and difficult physical environment of many locations have to be overcome.

Support is also a key issue, partly because of the precarious locations of many of the networks and also due to the critical nature of much of the information that is transferred.

“After-sales support from the systems integrator and support from the vendor are very important. Usually Oil companies like to work with local system integrators that specialise in providing network solutions to the industry,” continues Bourjeily.

The central importance of support is also shown by how NDC highlighted Cisco’s customer support as a key reason for integration of products from the company into its infrastructure.

“Cisco’s support is magnificent, the website has plenty of information and is a great first point of reference, while their telephone support is very good. When we have had problems, they have been able to stay with us until the task is finished, by handing over the problem to advisors in different countries if necessary,” says Habash.

Although the fundamentals of networking in the oil & gas industry are the same as in any other field, the energy business in the region provides some very particular requirements. With businesses heavily reliant on WAN connectivity, the bandwidth issue is especially close to the hearts of network managers in this field. The complexity of modern applications is such that it is almost inevitable that businesses will need to periodically invest in higher bandwidth. However, making the most of this bandwidth is a prudent step and can prevent costs spiraling out of control.||**||

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