America’s oil industry was born with the discovery of crude on a Pennsylvania farm in 1859. But nearly a century would pass before any prospector risked drilling far offshore, beyond the view of land.
The first “out-of-sight” oil platform was planted 10 miles off the coast of Louisiana in 1947. Since then, thousands of wells have been bored into the Gulf of Mexico’s petroleum-rich reserves, which today supply nearly one-fifth of the nation’s oil.
One of the world’s largest natural-resources companies operates two oil platforms in the Gulf, both of which stand in deep waters about 120 miles south of Louisiana. Like other oil giants, the company applies increasingly sophisticated technologies to combat the challenges inherent with operating an isolated platform in open waters. Harsh conditions – including the occasional hurricane – are just the start.
The 24/7 extraction of volatile substances, often under extreme pressure, requires precise control to help protect production, people and the environment. Automated operations and monitoring systems are critical to minimize costly downtime and detect irregularities before they can pose a threat.
Aging Servers Pose Risks
The natural-resources company launched its two offshore production systems within a year of each other with the same control systems. The first platform began operating in 2007, and the second – one of the deepest oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico – came online in 2008.
By 2012, the automated controls equipment was showing its age.
“The servers were acting up, and it became a real big challenge to keep the system going,” said an instruments and automation engineer for the company. “It got to the point that I had to get on a helicopter and fly out to a platform almost every week because of failures in different servers.”
On occasions when a platform lost power and the servers shut down, restoring operations required a time-consuming process – restarting each server one by one, in a prescribed sequence. The platform built in 2007 had 10 servers, while the slightly newer platform had 25.
The computers onboard were also outdated and unable to run new software. The reliability of the human machine interface (HMI) system was a special concern.
“The HMI system must be available at all times,” the engineer said. “If it goes down, you would have 50 to 60 people on the platform with no way to figure out what’s going on.”
The company’s engineering team began looking at upgrade options. Their goals: increase uptime, speed disaster recovery, and ease maintenance and management of the automated system. They also wanted a solution that would speed deployment and application development.
They quickly recognized that virtualization – using software to break the link between the operating system and the physical hardware – offered the best path forward.
“We conducted a cost-benefit analysis,” the engineer said. “Long term, replacing the physical servers with a virtualized environment would allow us to achieve the high availability our operations demand.”
That decision raised another question: How best to design and implement a virtualized solution to suit their offshore production systems?
They considered a do-it-yourself approach of designing and custom building the virtualization hardware from the ground up. But that would require the company’s IT department to specify the right equipment and possibly procure it from multiple vendors, then fabricate and test the system before commissioning it. “We decided against the old-fashioned approach purely because of the high cost of coordination requirements,” the engineer said.
Designed Onshore, Deployed Offshore
Instead, the company turned to Rockwell Automation for a turnkey virtualization solution.
“From our experience with Rockwell Automation, we knew they had the expertise needed,” the engineer said. Rockwell Automation programmable logic controllers and HMIs had been used for the original offshore production systems on both platforms. “Working with Rockwell Automation also gave us a single point of contact for the system design, all the hardware and support to stand up the servers, plus long-term technical assistance, if and when we need it.”
To minimize potential production downtime on the two platforms, the new system had to be configured and tested onshore.
“Before we made the switch-over offshore, we needed to run the new system through its paces to make sure all pieces were talking to each other properly,” the engineer explained. “We couldn’t afford any hiccups.”