Seamless multi-user communications: solutions, costs, and availability

When is remote access justified?

May 1st, 2000
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Connectivity options for offshore platforms.
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How meaningful are quality of life voice and data capabilities on offshore platforms, for both productivity and individual morale? Would on-demand or real-time production reports be a strategic advantage? Can the costs of maintaining onshore support groups be dramatically reduced by having purchase reports generated on a company's electronic resource planning (ERP) system from a platform in West Africa?

Remote access is one of the most pressing and intriguing information technology (IT) issues for energy companies worldwide. The question is whether it is an economically justifiable expense. Voice, data, streaming video, and the Internet can already change the most challenging offshore work environment.

Why aren't all of a company's systems seamlessly connected into one homogeneous network - where anyone can access any data in any form or use any application or system service regardless of location? The answers are:

  1. Bandwidth, which is the transmission speed between two points (usually expressed in bits or bytes per second)
  2. Associated costs of remote access.

Wide area networks

Beyond voice communications, computers immediately come to mind when most people think of connectivity. Wide area networks (WANs) are necessary for computer systems beyond your physical location to interact and exchange data. While local area networks (LANs) are typically dealt with by running cabling to each workstation, WANs usually require leasing part of a third party network. Third parties may use a local or long distance carrier or WANs can utilize microwave, lasers, radio, or satellites to provide connectivity.

Strategic needs for remote data access must be balanced against economics and value since most WAN bandwidth has recurring monthly costs that escalate with the amount needed. Of course, less bandwidth is less expensive, but different applications have different requirements. By analyzing and designing computer systems and their associated LANs and WANs, systems architects can deliver services that perform while minimizing the economic costs. The secret is in understanding the requirements, knowing the alternatives, and designing sound technical solutions.

Each solution unique

Virtually every oil and gas company, as well as every platform, has different remote access requirements. To put the issues into perspective, look at a hypothetical offshore production platform. Situated in the Gulf of Mexico, the platform is just over the horizon from land. There is no line-of-sight to the platform, which means that neither radio nor microwave are probable solutions. What are the company's remote access alternatives?

Typically, platforms have voice (analog) communication, which allows limited fax and dial-up modem connectivity. Analog may have been delivered by laying fiber optic cable to the platform or microwave, laser, or radio connectivity may be in use.

The platform could be at a technological disadvantage because dial-up is a very thin connection, especially in remote locations. The best dial-up connection speed on the platform can be as low as 19.2 baud (about 18,000 bits/second), compared with typical corporate offices' connection speeds ranging from 10-100 million bits/second. As a practical matter, accessing data using low speed connections renders many applications unusable.

Higher bandwidth is always possible, but capital investment and/or higher operating costs will be involved. Low bandwidth alternatives also exist. Current technology can relocate where traditional PC software runs from the remote workstation to a server farm in the corporate data center. In this scenario, only print jobs, sound, screen updates, and the user's keystrokes and mouse movements are sent over the wire.

Companies must weigh their business/technology options and costs to see which options are equal to or less than the satisfaction of real business goals. First, consider some offshore platform examples from business and quality-of-life perspectives.

  • Is faxing daily reports sufficient, or would electronic on-demand, or realtime be a clear advantage?
  • When ordering supplies for ongoing operations, are telephone communications acceptable or would e-business connections cost-effectively expedite the process?
  • On transportation pipelines from the platform, would realtime information on volume delivered, current flowrates, and flow problems be an added value?
  • Would remote video troubleshooting be highly, or only marginally, preferable to flying in experts from your corporate office?

  • Platform personnel have limited off-shift options. Is the status quo, preferable to providing them with full Internet access, for leisure and interactive training?
  • Would improved communications with their friends and families contribute to a better working environment?

Quality of life

Second, consider examples on the technology side. How feasible are the capital and operating costs of connectivity when budgeted among groups of platforms in each of your worldwide operational regions? Would certain platforms be selectively allocated these opportunities, to the detriment of your other platforms?

With many onshore groups wholly devoted to supporting activities of each platform, the company absorbs a significant monetary cost each year. Traditionally onshore support costs are not a budgetary focus, since all the costs are rolled into platform expenses as overhead.

What if you could turn business as usual into a major financial upside? At companies deploying ERP software, the entire onshore support operation can be conducted offshore electronically on the company-wide ERP system.

Three, what degree of connectivity is financially practical? For example, a platform affording relatively simple connections may incur monthly connectivity costs of $500-1,000, one beyond the horizon $10,000-20,000 per month, or a deep drill, long development may incur even higher connectivity costs.

Changing technology

The growth of Internet connectivity is one of the factors altering the business/technology equation. With technological advances, a platform can obtain a dial-up connection, keep it enabled 24 hours each day, and allow that connection to be shared for access to the Internet and/or the company intranet.

A strong trend toward shared networking is emerging using of frame relay versus dedicated leased lines. Frame relay is a shared access medium in which data is aggregated on the carrier's high-speed redundant network for long distance transport. Local circuits provide connectivity on each end to the frame "cloud." Frame is typically priced far below conventional leased circuits.

This trend is using the Internet itself for connectivity, essentially making it the common carrier. Through virtual private networks (VPNs), the connectivity is provided entirely by the Internet, but all data between the remote locations is secured with encryption.

Plans are currently underway to deploy 288 low earth orbit satellites (about 100 miles above the earth's surface) in 3-4 years. This may generate the biggest transformation yet in remote access. Today, most communications satellites are in geosynchronous high-earth orbit (22,300 miles above the earth's surface), but the low-earth orbit satellites will be capable of providing low-latency broadband transmission rates to any location worldwide.

Why are low-orbit satellites such a big deal? When considering the end-to-end "circuit" distance between two locations on opposite sides of the planet, total trip distance can be as much as 100,000 miles. The roundtrip time for a high-orbit satellite link is typically between a half and a full second. While that may seem small, it actually makes a tremendous difference in certain remote applications. Low-orbit satellites virtually eliminate this problem.

In coping with remote access between offshore platforms and oil companies' land-based offices, alternatives exist even today. First, you must identify the real business and human needs. Ideally, an entire suite of applications can be fully functional anywhere in the world. Arriving at the right solution demands weighing all the business/technology options and pinpointing which factors best support the company's core business needs.

Next, alternatives can be examined from a technical risk and economic analysis. At that point, each company working offshore can best decide how quickly and deeply they want to be involved with remote access, for the company's business interests and its people.

Author

Franklin Cantrell III is President & CEO of Houston-based Cierra Solutions, a systems designer, integrator and management provider.

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