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Rush to the cloud

Friday, September 21, 2012

The movement to cloud computing, sometimes used together with mobile devices, is happening faster than anyone predicted, according to a recent Accenture / Microsoft survey

In a 2012 survey of 200 oil and gas engineers, managers and IT managers, conducted by Microsoft and Accenture, 23 per cent said they were "currently using private cloud services," and 9 per cent said they were "currently using public cloud service,' and 36 per cent said "there are plans to use cloud services in the future.'

The move towards cloud services in the oil and gas industry seems to be moving faster than most people predicted.

Only 17 per cent said "Cloud Services are not applicable to my role" and 16 per cent said "There are no plans to use Cloud Services in the future."

Ali Ferling, worldwide managing director of oil and gas with Microsoft, said 'We see more and more of our industry partners coming up with cloud solutions, as well as also customers in the oil and gas industry starting to discuss this solution.'

'I think the industry is figuring out where we get the biggest benefit from using cloud services, [and how to get over] drawbacks some people have, such as security questions and legal restrictions to use cloud services, for example, if it is required to keep certain data in the same country.'

'It is our duty to find out what is the best usage, what are the best scenarios for cloud services,' he said.

There is also a growing interest in providing information from cloud type servers to mobile devices.

45 per cent of respondents said they thought key production indicators and common information should be made available to all users on a mobile device (tablet or smart phone).

27 per cent said it should be available to engineers and operators only, 20 per cent to management only, and only 1 per cent said that they would not like to provide data to anybody via a mobile device.

Benefits of cloud

There are plenty of hard commercial benefits to cloud computing. Microsoft has a case study with Baker Hughes using cloud services for high performance computing, where they found a simulation that previously took 9 months could be run on Microsoft WindowsAzure cloud platform in under 1 month, he said.

Cloud is not new, in that cloud e-mail (such as Hotmail) has been around for many years, but perhaps what has changed is the existence of mega data centres with tens of thousands of servers, which for example, bring down the cost of storing large amounts of data at low cost, Mr Ferling said.

Part of this cost reduction is achieved through new server technologies which use less electricity to operate and cool. 'That's a huge amount of operational expense on top of the hardware,' he said.

People are also getting much more accustomed to getting data from online services from their personal activities, he said.

Public and private

As soon as a discussion starts about cloud, the next question is usually whether you want to host the data on your own servers or public ones (such as the Microsoft ones).

The main difference between the two is the cost, Mr Ferling said - it is more expensive to host the data yourself.

'You can rent times in these data centres. You can run huge simulations and just pay for the time you use,' Mr Ferling said.

Building blocks

Microsoft sees its role as providing a range of tools or platforms which other companies can build services on top of. For every dollar Microsoft earns, Microsoft partners make eight, Mr Ferling said. 'We are a very partner-centric organisation in terms of delivering industry solutions and services to our customers.'

Microsoft is continuing with its 'Microsoft Upstream Reference Architecture' project to engage its customers and partners in discussions and agreement about, how to best use the Microsoft stack in an Upstream Oil & Gas connect, or - to mention a concrete example, what is the best architecture related to specific business scenarios, such as data architecture, streaming data etc.. All this is based on, but not limited to, Microsoft products as the building blocks.

In the meantime, there are 39 Industry partners involved in MURA and holding monthly meetings, on topics such as big data and security, cloud, and how to fit mobile phones and slates into the business environment.

Other survey responses

Also in the survey, 74.5 percent of respondents said they spent as much or more 'focus and investment' on IT in 2011 as they did in 2010.

Nearly half (43 percent) said they also anticipate lower costs due to streamlined operational workflows.

Almost 75 percent of survey respondents agreed that the need for improved incident response has created the need for greater IT integration in the upstream environment. However, 60.5 percent of respondents said that, as a result of those same regulations, they are experiencing slower business processes.

Regional results reveal that additional regulations were slowing business processes for close to half (46.3 percent) of North American survey respondents, followed by respondents in Asia-Pacific (12.4 percent) and Africa (7.4 percent).

There's not much improvement in the biggest problem people have, finding information. That was the biggest difficulty in both the 2010 and 2012 surveys, in particular retrieving information from another department of the company.

When asked 'What are your concerns regarding the use of Cloud Services', 45 per cent said security, 26 per cent said loss of control, 22 per cent said standards, 5 per cent said none.

Apps not data

Dean Forrester, senior director at Accenture's Energy industry group, said that he is surprised how fast the industry's interest in cloud has developed from seeing it as a place to store data to seeing it as a place to run applications from.

'It's not a big hard drive in the sky; people are moving services out to the cloud,' he said.

There are many vendors developing cloud workflows, for example for gas lift optimisation or well test optimisation, he said.

A lot of these applications are also running on mobile devices.

There are 2 ways mobile computing is used in the oil and gas industry - the 'Starbucks' case, where an employee wants to get the same data on his iPad in a coffee shop as she can in the office, and the field usage, where staff at field sites find tablet computers much more convenient than laptops.

Accenture has been running workshops with a number of oil majors and service provides in Houston, to talk about what kind of data tools their staff might need on their mobile devices, eg to monitor downhole pumps or field equipment.

Accenture has already built a range of experimental mobile phone apps, for example one for monitoring a field, including a map, which shows you where you are in the field, and gives you alarms from the equipment.

Accenture has 5,000 staff members with skills to build mobile phone apps and the infrastructure behind it, Mr Forrester said.

It is becoming a challenge filtering out which mobile phone apps you are actually going to build. 'Everybody has a great mobility (mobile phone app) idea,' he said. 'How do you identify what are the key trees you want to jump on?'

IT departments 'need someone in charge of mobility,' and 'you need business people involved in the prioritisation of which apps do we build,' he said.

But it is possible to build up tablet apps as quickly as 4-6 weeks 'from something on a post-it note to something that you can look at and touch,' he said.

Mobile devices are unlikely to replace the desktop or laptop computer, but they are more useful if someone wants to look something up quickly or post some data.

'The minute you put something on an ipad or iPhone, there's an expectation that it will be pretty, easy to use, you can just tap on it and something useful will happen,' he said.

'Start to finish, to produce a really high demo content, took 4 - 6 weeks - it's as good as anything you'll see on the app store,' he said.

Don't assume everybody has fast wireless bandwidth available - many oilfields are in remote areas where there aren't even mobile phone masts. 'That's part of the design principles that you have to consider with mobility.'

You also need to make sure that the app keeps running fine if the data communications is lost. 'The application has to keep working - stacking up stuff ahead of time,' he said.

Making apps for different devices is not so difficult, the user interface is usually about 10 per cent of the work, 90 per cent of the work is the data plumbing behind it.

'If you have to build more than one front end, that's a drop in the ocean compared to the back end - getting the data right, getting the data architecture right, getting the appropriate data to the appropriate people.'



Associated Companies
» Microsoft Oil and Gas
» Accenture
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