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Microsoft in oil and gas

Monday, July 19, 2010

We interviewed Microsoft’s head of oil and gas Ali Ferling about what Windows 7, the Xbox and Cloud Computing have to offer the industry – and how Microsoft plans to make it easier to work with corporate software

microsoftaliferling.jpgWe're all familiar with Microsoft products – running our computers and desktop applications, and perhaps also our computer games and our e-mail. We might have tried Windows 7.

But Microsoft has a lot more to offer the oil and gas industry than that – and it is planning to do a lot more in the future.

Windows 7, the new operating system, aims to provide both high performance computing and high security. Many of us believe that there is a play-off between having a secure computer (with everything on the hard drive encrypted) and making it fast. Microsoft is aiming to give us both at the same time.

When it comes to working on corporate systems, many of us have discovered that they can be a lot less user friendly than our usual office software and web browsing, with long delays, navigation through complex screens, and time spent learning how to use it.

Microsoft is hoping to provide us with access to our corporate systems (such as SAP and maintenance management software) which is just as easy as working on office software – by helping build another layer of software which brings you, as the user, exactly what you need.

Cloud computing is another interesting area. Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, recently spoke at the company’s January 2010 Oil and Gas Global Energy Forum, saying he was trying to work out the best time to make a bet that the oil industry would move to cloud computing – where all our software will be run from a remote location, not our company servers.

It might take 3 years, it might take 8 years, but cloud computing is inevitable, Mr Ballmer believes. Running servers is becoming very complicated and hard for companies to do themselves – but in the standardised cloud environment, one person can administrate 1000 servers. It is also much easier for people in different places – or in different companies – to collaborate.

The Xbox also has something to offer the oil and gas industry. Microsoft is thrilled that oil and gas software company Landmark recently built a reservoir modelling tool running on the Xbox – using the Xbox’s powerful graphics processing and controller, you can fly through the middle of a reservoir model – and get a much better understanding of it than from the typical birds eye or 2D view.

“Turn left and you see left,” Mr Ferling said. “It’s a much more natural way of how you explore.”

The next generation of the Xbox, to be released this year, will have a system for tracking body motion. This is mainly designed for computer games, so you can play soccer by kicking a virtual football on your bedroom floor. It could also be used to track eye motion in videoconferencing, so you can give grandma direct eye contact.

“Its not a goofy teleconference - grandma always feels like we're looking just at grandma,” Mr Ballmer said.

But Mr Ballmer envisages there will be plenty of opportunities for this in the oil and gas industry – including enabling people to get rid of the keyboard in dusty environments – people can interact with a computer with their bodies and don’t even need to take their gloves off.

It could even be used to identify people – since the way people’s bodies move are fairly unique to them.

Even the humble Excel is due for an upgrade. The next version of Excel will be able to handle 5 millions of  lines – more than most people would create manually, but not much if the lines are being generated from sensors taking regular readings. But you’ll be able to scroll through it as fast as if it had 10s of lines 20 lines, not millions Mr Ferling says.

Windows 7

But the most important development for the oil and gas industry is probably Windows 7 and its associated Windows 2008 Server R2.

The Norwegian Petroleum Directorate and Statoil (see case studies on following page) have already started rolling it out to their whole companies, and report that computers are much faster to start up, the users need less support, it is easier to run over slower internet connections.

With the “BitLocker” tool they can ensure that all users data is encrypted, whether on the laptop hard drive itself or on portable hard drives, so there’s no risk if data is ever stolen or taken out of the system for other reasons. This can be enforced by the network, so that people can only connect to the network if their computer is encrypting everything.

The DirectAccess tool is designed to make networks easier to run. Branch offices can hold temporary ‘caches’ of commonly downloaded files, so people do not have to download the whole file from head office every time they want it. IT managers can use it to push security updates out to all computers on the network, wherever they are. It

Filling the gaps

Microsoft is trying to do more to fill the gap between the user-orientated software products it has traditionally made, and corporate IT systems which can often leave the user experience a bit lacking.

The company was recently involved in a project with an oil major oil firm in the Gulf of Mexico, where it built an ‘abstraction layer’ on top of the company’s existing software applications (including MRO for maintenance and SAP), which would make the tools easier to work with.

This means it can easily and quickly provide people with the information they need, all on one screen, designed for someone in their role.

“We need to understand how people really work to get the right information into their back office systems,” said Mr Ferling.

Microsoft is unique in that it does not generally deal direct with end users, but works through partners which deal direct with customers. Big Microsoft partners in the oil and gas industry include Schlumberger, Halliburton, Honeywell, Invensys and AspecnTech.

Microsoft has a consulting organisation, which deals with the company’s biggest enterprise customers directly for architecture and support. It also works with partners to enable and deliver their projects.Microsoft has a consulting organisation, but mainly to help its partners put together software architecture and provide support to them.

Reference architectures

Microsoft is also keen to start efforts to help the industry use standard ‘reference architecture’ for how everything fits together.

“We really believe that working closer together as an industry in deploying similar architectures, at least between companies – really getting them more agreeing on some principales – would help move the industry forward,” says Mr Ferling.

A reference architecture is like the IT plan – showing how everything fits together, and how one data from one person’s system will link into another’s.

Cloud computing

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, believes that in the short to mid term future, no-one will store data on their own PCs or office servers any more – everything will be in the cloud – because it is so much easier to maintain servers that way.

With cloud services, the number of servers which one person can comfortably look after is much bigger – increased from 140 servers typically managed by 1 administrator in an office, to around 1,000 for a cloud service.

In an interview with Harts E&P magazine, Mr Ballmer said that one of the things he was trying to assess was the likelihood that the oil and gas industry could move all of its computing onto cloud computing

“The question is, is it reasonable to bet that within three years, people in this industry will be working just in a cloud environment? That’s one of the things I’m trying to get a feel for in this visit to Houston.”

“We’ve got to make the right bet now for a year, two years down the road. But that’s not the same bet for five, six, eight years from now, which tends to be more of the case, I’d say, in the energy business.”

Microsoft has built many large data centres around the world, supporting its applications such as Hotmail and Bing search engine.

It offers the Azure platform, or ‘Windows in the cloud’ – which developers can use to build applications, running on the Windows Azure operating system, or using its its its Microsoft SQL Azure relational database.

Keeping data on a cloud does not imply that it needs to be on the same hard drive, or same data centre, as your competitors’ data – there could be advantages to oil majors running their own cloud systems.

Cloud Computing services are particularly useful for managing data which people from different companies are working on, because it avoids the need for one person to get behind another company’s firewall.

Companies might end up mixing public ‘cloud’ data with more sensitive data on their own servers.

For example the company iStore has a service which can combine a cloud database with data about 3 million US wells, together with a company’s proprietary seismic software.

Microsoft, together with partners, installed a system for BP in the Gulf of Mexico, which would take together data from 30 differnent sources, some public, some proprietary, some from cloud systems – and gather it together to provide early warning systems, which would provide BP with more advance knowledge about a hurricane building up so it could start planning the evacuation.

The Norwegian Petroleum Directorate

The Norwegian Petroleum Directorate, a government agency, upgraded all of the computers for its 220 employees to Windows 7 Enterprise during 2009, with staff all provided with Dell Latitude E6400 laptops.

It also installed the new version of WindowsServer, optimised for Windows 7 PCs, and BitLocker, which ensures data is kept encrypted, and DirectAccess, a software tool to help remote workers.

Roald Ommundsen, IT Manager, Norwegian Petroleum Directorate, sees the biggest benefits of Windows 7 as being “faster startup and shutdown times, improved usability, and faster access to documents from anywhere.”

It expects people will save 30 minutes a day from being more efficient with their computers, and IT staff will save 100 hours a year in software deployment and have 30 per cent fewer support calls. The computers will be more secure.

When everyone was using Windows XP, the organisation tried to work with encryption software which would ensure that all data stored on the PCs was encrypted; but it found that it slowed the PCs down so much it was impossible to work with. This was very dangerous with such sensitive data being stored on them.

NPD (Norwegian Petroleum Directorate) used the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit to roll out the first 100 computers, then used Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager 2007 for the other 120, to deploy and configure all desktop software from a single console.

Engineers and information workers also are using the Windows 7 DirectAccess feature to quickly access files from the corporate network when out of the office and to synchronize files when offsite.

The IT staff use DirectAccess, to apply security updates to portable computers more regularly and to access and view computers of users calling for support.

With the Windows 7 BitLocker To Go feature, NPD can now secure all its portable computers and USB drives without paying for third-party encryption software.  This means savings of $14k per year.

Atle Vatland, systems consultant for NPD, says that Windows 7 can be deployed in 15 mintues, compared to an hour with Windows XP.

Statoil

Norwegian oil company Statoil joined a Microsoft 'early adopter' program in April 2009, deploying Windows 7 on 100 computers, and using a pre-release version of Windows Sever 2008 R2.

The main reasons were that it wanted to improve IT security, improve network connectivity for remote employees, the company says.

It is using the BranchCache service to enable branch offices to get better access to corporate networks, and DirectAccess to simplify remote connectivity (for travelling employees).

The company wanted to enable employees to access collaboration tools without first connecting with a virtual private network.

 “A couple of our offices in Africa, for example, have real challenges with internet access,”  says Petter Wersland, Leading Advisor for IT Infrastructure at StatoilHydro.

When downloading files, Windows 7 detects what communications speed the user has and if the speed isn't so high, retrieves documents from an offline cache.

The company expects a big increase in the number of portable computers used by its employees and wants to make sure it’s IT infrastructure is secure. "With Windows XP, the standard user configuration was not easy to implement in our environment, with so many applications and user scenarios,” Mr Wersland says.

“Consequently, nearly all users had local administrator rights, which enabled them to download unauthorized programs.”

The IT staff also wanted easier ways to apply security updates to Internet-connected computers and to generally gain better control.

Statoil used Windows Deployment Services to move its PCs to Windows 7 quickly.

It will use  Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager 2007 to install the software on 30 per cent of its computers. 70 per cent of its 40,000 computers will be replaced entirely, with new computers provided with Windows 7 pre-installed.

The company is implementing BitLocker technology which can encrypt data on entire hard drives and also portable USB drives. This is built into Windows 7, so there is no need to use third party encryption software.

Using DirectAccess, IT administrators can update remote computers any time they are connected to the internet.


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» Microsoft Oil and Gas

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