11:28 AM

Don't Drill Deep For Data Links

Secure, high-speed bandwidth-on-demand services help drilling industry control costs.

It's hard to imagine a tougher environment for sensitive IT and communications gear than that maintained by Atwood Oceanics. The oil- and gas-exploration company operates a fleet of offshore drilling rigs year-round from the Gulf of Mexico to the Mediterranean. Weather, ocean conditions, and high transmission costs all make secure, high-speed rig-to-rig and rig-to-shore communications time-consuming and expensive.

To help cut those costs and improve network speed and reliability, Atwood has outsourced data communications management for its entire fleet of rigs to the managed services arm of Schlumberger Ltd. As part of a three-year, $1.5 million deal disclosed this week, Schlumberger will install and maintain a satellite communications system that lets crews aboard Atwood rigs, such as the Atwood Hunter, currently drilling 30,000 feet into a seabed off Egypt-exchange data, establish video links and engage in secure messaging between Houston headquarters and other rigs. Atwood rigs use the Inmarsat C satellite system for data communications, but that can cost hundreds of dollars per hour. "When you're doing a full overnight database replication, that adds up," Atwood IT manager David Trahan says.

Schlumberger is installing its Dexa.Net VSAT (very small aperture terminal) satellite system aboard Atwood rigs and on-shore facilities. Used broadly in business and consumer applications such as DirecTV, VSAT is considerably less expensive than Inmarsat. To further control costs, Schlumberger is deploying a bandwidth-on-demand service that lets Atwood pay only for the time it uses on the network. Trahan says the deal will pay for itself over the life of the contract.

Trahan says outsourcing communications management and other IT functions is becoming a given for the drilling industry as complexity increases. The only IT staffers aboard Hunter are safety personnel who have been cross-trained to deal with minor computer problems. "Now we have a single point of accountability for service and expertise," says Trahan, who notes that Atwood can walk away from the deal if Schlumberger fails to meet certain service levels.

Security also is a consideration. The suspected terrorist attack earlier this month on a French oil tanker while in port off Yemen has raised the possibility of future attacks on Western oil interests, particularly if the United States attacks Iraq. "Being an international company, working in the Mediterranean, there's a lot of issues we need to be aware of," Trahan says.

Already the world's biggest IT services supplier to the oil industry, Schlumberger is looking to grow that part of its business. "A lot of people don't realize how data-driven the oil industry is," business-development manager John Morganti says. This week, the company acquired the software and services arm of Technoguide AS, a provider of seismographic modeling software and services. Terms of the deal weren't disclosed.

Dexa.Net uses a mix of technologies to ensure secure data transmission. Smart cards at client stations use public key infrastructure encryption technology for user authentication, while VSAT transmissions will be carried across a secure virtual private network that's dedicated to Atwood. Trahan says the system will also let Atwood make better use of videoconferencing, lessening the need to put personnel in harm's way: "If we can cut down on travel by leveraging technology, then we're even safer."

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