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Oil Producer Uses Virtualization to Shore Up Controls in Offshore Production Systems

Rockwell Automation solution helps oil giant increase uptime, speed disaster recovery and ease system management

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  • Outdated servers at two offshore oil production systems cause frequent, unplanned downtime, highlighting the need for a long-term solution


  • Virtualization - High-availability, virtualized servers have replaced most of the physical servers, freeing precious onboard space and increasing uptime


  • Reduced critical downtime
  • Reduced commissioning time
  • Increased disaster recovery speeds

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.”

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.

The company targeted the smaller, older rig first. Rockwell Automation engineers designed the virtualization solution, including an Industrial Data Center (IDC) incorporating the necessary hardware and software components. The Rockwell Automation team configured the virtualized system onshore and provided training to the company’s technical team, which then did the testing.

Two months later, the platform’s virtualized system was ready to go. With the new hardware installed and virtual machines (VMs) created to replace all the running machines on the rig, it was time for the live changeover, in parallel with the old controls. The switch happened without a hitch – and no downtime.

Six months later, the second platform’s new system was deployed using the same switch-over process. Again, no downtime.

Virtues of Virtualization

Today, the offshore production systems on both rigs operate with just three upgraded physical servers. High-availability, virtualized servers have replaced the rest, freeing precious onboard space. But a smaller footprint is just the start of the virtualization benefits.

Engineering and platform workers no longer have to worry about servers crashing. If a failure occurs, the virtualized-server cluster will automatically respond and restart the affected VM on other hosting resources. VMware vSphere® Fault Tolerance allows a VM to run simultaneously on two physical servers to help protect it from critical failures.

This quick recovery capability was the main selling point for virtualization among the natural-resource company’s management.

“If you kill a server, it will resurrect with another server,” said the engineer, who demonstrated the system to his bosses before it was deployed offshore. “We couldn’t make it fail.”

Upgrading the software or applying operating system patches is simple. The new system allows operators to take a “snapshot” of the current software configuration, then implement changes and revert to previous configurations if needed. This feature also reduces the risk of system changes.

After the virtualized systems were installed, platform workers were initially dubious that restoring power to the rig would be easier after an outage. Until they saw the new system in action.

“Instead of restarting each server one by one, a worker just pushes three buttons,” the engineer said. “Then the whole system starts up by itself, self-sequencing everything automatically.”

Since the switch to a virtualized offshore production system, the engineer spends far less time on the two platforms.

“A couple of years ago, I was spending half a day each week working to keep those servers alive,” he said. “Since we put the new system in, I haven’t had to touch it.”

The results mentioned above are specific to this company’s use of Rockwell Automation products and services in conjunction with other products. Specific results may vary for other customers.

vSphere is a trademark of VMware.


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