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IT & The Pipelines

Whether it's fiber for backhaul or microwave for remote campsites, the oil and gas industry is one that cannot tolerate any interruptions in communications. alberta in particular is a hotbed of networking know-how.


January 1, 2010  


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The oil and gas industry in Alberta has seen its fair share of ups and downs. The boom and bust cycles have also made life interesting for the networking side of things. Alberta in particular saw network infrastructure deployment moving along at a manic pace as oil and gas exploration activities grew by leaps and bounds.

As the fiber groundwork was laid, a plethora of wireless options were on the table for attacking the last mile delivery of services to the nether regions of the province.

As exploration and drilling activity slow down, networking strategies continue to dominate IT managers’ agendas as they now focus on “tweaking” existing infrastructures, exploring last mile delivery technology options, and looking at solutions to improve remote monitoring and worker safety.

Whether it’s fiber for backhaul or microwave for remote campsites, the oil and gas industry is one that cannot tolerate any interruptions in communications. Robustness, reliability and reach are critical in an industry where even the shortest downtimes can take $2 million away from the bottom line.

At the same time, it is an industry that makes life challenging for network managers. There are thousands of square kilometres of inhospitable regions that make it difficult if not impossible to lay fiber. Even cellular, radio and satellite can have their line of sight and other logistical challenges.

Despite the hurdles, rock solid, secure and generous bandwidth is essential to business and worker survival. Automated data capture and analysis of vital statistics, video feeds (for surveillance and videoconferencing), 24/7 voice communications for workers in high risk areas all make for uncompromising network requirements.

The lay of the infrastructure landscape: Networking in the oil and gas sector is a far cry from the typical enterprise approach, says Scott Fawcett, director Energy Industry for Cisco Canada in Calgary. “We like to say in this industry that ‘IT has left the building.’ It’s not all about building downtown core applications.”

There are many aspects to consider: drilling, exploration, the pipeline infrastructure, refinery, distribution and retail, not to mention hundreds of monitoring devices underground and along thousands of kilometres of pipelines. The architectures needed to support these levels of activity have to have the ruggedness, speed and security to handle constant data feeds, hostile conditions and multiple failover options.

Given the diversity of activities and environmental challenges, options abound. For the most part, oil field activities piggy back off whatever happens to be the closest fiber infrastructure, which can sometimes be hundreds of kilometres away.

The government of Alberta has helped the cause with the Alberta SuperNet launched in 2005. Developed by Axia NetMedia Inc., this MPLS IPbased network connects all communities in the province that have a government, learning, health, library or municipal facility. Of its 15,000 kilometres of infrastructure, a vast majority (13,000) is fiber optic cabling and 2,000 is heavy route microwave wireless for communities at the farthest ends of the network.

“What SuperNet has done is bridge the digital divide,” says Dave Ehman, chief wireless engineer for Axia. “Each point of presence in 429 communities can be used by carriers to provide backhaul connectivity.”

Ehman admits that when it was decided to use an MPLS network there was a lot of skepticism. “In retrospect that was the right answer. We’ve been able to enjoy the benefits of new technology without having to worry about latency, packet loss and jitter.”

Axis is now working on closing more loops in the network for (improved) redundancy. “That’s because we’re asking more and more of the original network,” Ehman explains. He adds that with an all IP MPLS network, it has been able to limit operational costs because it allows for easy servicing and management from the Network Operations Centre (NOC). “We have about 50 to 70 people in day to day management of the SuperNet. If you look at big legacy carriers, they would have 10 times the number of people.”

The last mile: While the fiber infrastructure for the province has an impressive reach, last mile delivery is where things can get interesting. With the increased value of video in a variety of applications, including pipeline monitoring, just how much bandwidth is needed for any given job can change considerably.

“As you start getting cameras, analytics, surveillance, access cards and videoconferencing IT organizations have to think in terms of more robust networks,” notes Fawcett. “Many are adding edge wireless to their refinery type environment for RFID, logistics and inventory applications.”

Depending on the size of the operations, picking up the tab for fiber may be the route to go, but this requires a sizeable budget and a very long-term commitment to regional oil and gas operations to generate an ROI that makes sense. “Running fiber over a $5 billion pipeline could cost $50 million. But you can do voice, video, hotspots if you do that,” Fawcett says. “For a third of the cost you can use cellular to take readings of SCADA systems, but you wouldn’t have the luxury of video.”

The oil sands in particular have a wide array of configurations, he adds. “It might be fiber to the site, or Telus services, or using the SuperNet as backhaul. In really remote facilities, you’ll find hotspots using a wireless satellite link. Wireless mesh has also been used to cross oil sand operations for vehicle tracking systems and voice communications.”

Last mile service delivery may have gotten a boost with the recent launch of Telus’ 3G+ network, which has the capacity to support higher data rates and video feeds. The network now covers a vast majority of the oil and gas regions (over 390,000 square kilometres in Alberta).

The extended services account for a $600 million investment in B.C. and Alberta, reports Andy Burgess, director, energy ver- tical for Telus in Edmonton. “Given that 70% of workers in the oil and gas industry are in the field, 3G+ means you can use your workers more productively, while still leveraging the CDMA platform for basic data and field tracking. It could also make the telemetry portion of SCADA much easier and less expensive to accommodate.”

As a person who spent 18 years in the oil and gas industry, Colin Polanski, associate chair, Telecommunications for the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton, notes that there is a huge demand in Alberta on the wireless side of things, whether it’s 3G+, microwave or private licensed radio. “When you talk cabling and infrastructure and getting to the well, a lot of that involves using wireless to get data to where it can reach a cable. Much of what has been done is standardized on 802.11, although Wi-Max might be used by some to get the plant communications closer to the nearest town.”

Securing the pipeline: Security and access are also vital concerns in an industry that relies on third-party providers, notes Venkat Pothamsetty, business development manager, smart grid solutions, for Cisco in Austin, Tex. “The biggest challenge lies in under standing how to provide secure and available communications to internal users, between departments, third party users, device makers and engineering, especially when you need to access critical data or diagnose a problem in a refinery.”

Access technologies and high availability are not just to be addressed at the device level, but at the control plane as well, he notes. “If one blade in your router fails, how do other blades take over? How do your provides access to the various sensors/points of information?”

It becomes even more problematic given the distance and speed limitations of some remote connectivity options. SCADA information being transmitted can be “miles and miles apart,” Pothamsetty says, making satellite or
3G connections the most common options.

A refinery for its part needs much higher bandwidth. “The technologies typically used at the pipelines are simply not good enough,” he adds. Depending on the reach and costs, he advises point-to-point radio, or extending fiber to the site and using a bridging technology from there. Meshed Wi-Fi is viable but could be costly if using it to cover the entire area between corporate and the remote site.

Using the right intelligent switching/ routing and firewall technology is also critical for managing traffic in the field. As part of the planning process, it is essential to determine what types of checks are being conducted and who has access to which devices/ data at any given time, as well as failover and packet routing policies.

Network technology for its part must enforce rules for specific IP addresses and ports, command authorizations for users and modbus rights, among other parameters,” Pothamsetty explains.

“If something fails on a VAN at the middle or at corporate, you must determine how the network needs to reconfigure itself to remain up

Climate change: With the slower economy, the focus is now on revamping previous network architectures to improve productivity in the field. “It all went very fast in the beginning, and things weren’t always done right in the first stage,” Fawcett says.

“Different people were making decisions. Some went in and independently built their own networks to their own requirements. Others have multiple solutions across the oil field. Now IT is saying let’s look at one architecture to support it all and thinking holistically about what they need.”

It is also about improving productivity through advanced networking capabilities. On-site video streaming combined with automated data reading for example, can eliminate the need and costs for traveling to and from remote sties. The same holds true for unified communications and telepresence as a means to reduce travel costs and speed decision making.

Virtualization could be another major piece of the future puzzle, speculates Grant Aitken, area vice president for VMware Canada. “Any company that has dynamic requirements such as oil and gas has an immediate need to kick into high gear to get new projects moving. That plays directly into the qualities of a virtual infrastructure.”

On the networking side especially, network virtualization can play a role in reducing and/or eliminating the amount of physical cable being pulled to support a growing infrastructure.

In 2009, virtual networking took another leap forward with the release of the dynamic virtual switch that can span across all physical servers and does not require reprogramming attributes when a switch or machine is moved, Aitken explains.

Virtual desktops are also a rapidly growing area in supporting on-site personnel. “It’s particularly relevant in far flung places where it is hard to maintain the physical hardware,” Aitken says. “It’s easy to support using desktop management tools. Even relatively low bandwidth services areas are more than adequate to support users on remote desktops.”

An increasing area of focus for any industrial operation with limited field resources and miles of coverage to take into account, is network change management, notes Jaakko Aho, business development manager for Nokia Siemens Networks in Espoo, Finland. “Remote communications is critical to optimizing field maintenance resources in the oil and gas industry. Some people could be 100 kilometres away from where they are needed, so it is essential to optimize your network and build and manage it as efficiently as possible. For many, that could mean outsourcing to third party suppliers that have a higher point density for their networks; or combining resources with local utility companies to manage similar work.”

“One thing I do know when it comes down to boom or bust,” Polanski says. “Wireless serves both ends. In the boom time, there are more wells and more drilling so more data is going back and forth. In the bust time, less people are involved and safety becomes an issue. Either way you need technology to move information or make sure your people are safe. From a wireless perspective, you could call it a win/ win because the technologies have been able to accommodate what we expect out of them.”

Denise Deveau is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

She can be reached at denise@denised.com

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Networking on the range

For members of the IT department at Cenovus Energy’s Integrated Oil Division, getting networks up and running at remote oil and gas operations can sometimes be an exercise in very creative thinking. With numerous operations scattered throughout the northeast Alberta region, network design and maintenance has had to accommodate the demands of geography, weather conditions and in one case, the rules of a military weapons range.

“Any time you are dealing with remote locations it’s difficult to provide any type of communications,” Vitali Sukhetsky, IT business analyst with the firm. “Typically there is no telecom network infrastructure from any service provider. Yet some or our sites can have as many as 2,000 people, staying in camps, working in facilities and drilling. We have to make sure we have reliable infrastructures.”

Foster Creek is Cenovus’ first commercial SAGD (steam assisted gravity drainage) location, and currently operates 159 wells producing 100,000 barrels a day. Given that staff often has to spend weeks at a time on site, the IT folks make sure that it can offer a quality camp life, complete with Internet cafes for users to do their banking, take training courses, video conference with their peers and other social and recreational activities.

But the location has one particular distinction, says Colleen Jones, team lead, IT solutions for the Integrated Oil Division. “Foster Creek was certainly a unique challenge. Not only is it in an extremely remote location, it just happens to be situated on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range.”

The biggest hurdle for the team was the fact that structures could not exceed 30 metres in height. “That certainly limits the range of wireless communications and line of sight,” says Sukhetsky. “The only way to extend the range was to link more towers. I’d say we have up to five times the normal amount of towers.”

In addition, the nearest termination point for fiber was 150 kilometres away, which meant footing the bill to trench in its own fiber ring to the site in partnership with a local utility.

Additional safety measures include separate handheld radio coverage within the plant area to enable communications with the emergency call centre located at the range gate, built-in redundancy, and a wireless connection to the north end of the fiber ring. “It doesn’t matter if something gets cut, we are still able to communicate,” Jones says.

Even further from Calgary is the Christina Lake operation, where the IT team has trenched 20 kilometres of fiber to reach the SuperNet backhaul location. Although the first network in 2000 used a frame-relay architecture, the site was converted to IP telephony a year ago for improved management.

Jones reports that they are now taking what they have learned to apply to Foster Creek, where conversion to IP telephony is about to begin. It’s all part of the company’s
phased
implementation approach, that builds on the experience gained in the field of one site to strengthen the resources of another.

As Jones says, “We know we have to build facilities out there that will be with us for a long period of time. We need to have a great infrastructure in place so we can report back accurately on production and ensure our people are safe.”

-Denise Deveau