Extreme IT: Hurricanes, high winds and heavy seas

When Lance Gibson talks about a storm knocking out his systems, he doesn't mean the infamous worm. He might be referring to the latest hurricane to sweep through the Gulf of Mexico or to the lightning accompanying a vicious thunderstorm.

Gibson is the offshore infrastructure communications supervisor for Chevron Corp.'s oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico, overseeing the IT needs of the company's offshore production facilities as well as its onshore support centers.

"Basically, I'm responsible for the entire infrastructure delivery," he says, "from the servers onshore all the way to the microwave, wireless and satellite communications we use for our voice and data communications offshore." We spoke with Gibson in mid-August; joining the conversation was Chevron public affairs representative Qiana Wilson.

A couple of weeks after our conversation, Hurricane Gustav provided a dramatic reminder of the kinds of situations Gibson has to deal with. Chevron and other companies with facilities in the Gulf evacuated their workers and shut down their oil platforms in advance of the threatening storm.

Once Gustav passed, Chevron began assessing its facilities and planning on remobilization of personnel, but Hurricane Ike put an end to that and forced another evacuation. At the time of this writing, Chevron reports that although several of its platforms were toppled by the storms, the company has once again started remobilizing its personnel.

Where are the offshore oil facilities that you support?

Gibson: We support the entire Gulf of Mexico region, from offshore Texas to offshore Alabama, whether our operations are on the OCS [Outer Continental Shelf] or in the deepwater areas of the Gulf of Mexico. That includes all of our offshore production platforms and drilling rigs, as well as our onshore operations that pertain to our Gulf of Mexico business units.

[Editor's note: The Gulf measures about 1,000 miles east to west and more than 500 miles north to south from Louisiana to the Yucatan Peninsula.]

How many installations are there?

Wilson: We don't like to say how many offshore installations we actually have. But I can tell you that Chevron is the largest leaseholder in the Gulf of Mexico shelf.

How far offshore is the farthest one?

Wilson: Right now, the farthest offshore is [the platform named] Genesis, which is about 150 miles from New Orleans. When Tahiti and Blind Faith come online, they'll be still further out and in deeper water.

How deep?

Gibson: The water depth can range from 10 feet near the shore all the way to 3,000 or 4,000 feet in the deeper waters. We're constantly moving out deeper.

How many people work on each platform?

Wilson: It varies from platform to platform; we don't really like to divulge that information.

Do you travel around from platform to platform, or are you stationed on land?

Gibson: I'm stationed on land -- my home office is here in Lafayette, Louisiana. My group is primarily stationed on land also.

We take a tiered, or layered, approach to support. We do most of our troubleshooting "on the beach," and if we cannot resolve the problem, then we'll dispatch one of our technicians offshore. But we try to do most of our support from onshore, to save money.

What's the communications setup on the platforms?

Gibson: A typical facility will have a wireless LAN installed, with all your standard network gear -- routers and switches and all that. And then they have microwave and VSAT [ Very Small Aperture Terminal ] satellite communications systems. But we house our servers on land, in either our Lafayette or Covington [Louisiana] locations.

What kind of data travels over your network?

Gibson: Mostly your typical business data -- Microsoft Word, Excel, that sort of data. And then we have specific application data -- real-time drilling information, automated monitoring of the status of the platform and so on.

What's the biggest challenge you face?

Gibson: Trying to do wireless communications over water. Moving voice and data via wireless connectivity over water poses a lot of difficulties. The technology is there, but it can be done with greater reliability in other environments than in the tropical environment we have here in the Gulf.

For one thing, the heat is a big concern. All of our systems are in controlled environments, of course, but we have to ensure that those environments are operating on a daily basis. Summer temperatures are in the mid- to upper 90s, and the equipment on the platforms is surrounded by steel, which heats up in the sun and magnifies the effect.

Salt's another issue. When we transport equipment, it's subjected to salt air. The salt attaches itself to the circuitry and corrodes it.

But probably our biggest problems with the environment have to do with [specific weather conditions]. In the spring and fall, we have a lot of issues with fog. The network relies primarily on microwave communications, and weather conditions can disrupt the signal between two physical connection points and cause our networks to fade in and out. Rain, too, can cause fading issues with our backup satellite systems.

We also have temperature-inversion problems. With the Mississippi River bringing cold water down from the north and dumping it into the warm water of the Gulf, it causes a lot of temperature inversions [when warmer air sits on top of cooler air]. They distort the microwave frequencies, so the connections drop in and out.

And then there's lightning -- that causes us a lot of trouble on our offshore installations. We've got a steel platform sitting out in the middle of the open ocean, so it attracts lightning. If you're not properly grounded -- and grounding equipment to a facility and then grounding the facility itself is definitely a challenge -- you can lose your equipment entirely.

Is the wave motion a problem?

Gibson: For our shelf platforms, that's not really a concern. Those are fixed-leg platforms -- they're sitting on the sea floor. But our deepwater facilities are primarily floaters, and microwave communications need a fixed line of sight. We have been able to establish microwave communications using a floating facility, but it does have its issues.

There's a new technology we're looking at deploying that we hope will help fix these issues. It uses a stabilized antenna mount that will actually move with the platform. It's an approach that's already used in VSAT communications. Cruise liners, for example, have stabilized units that stay locked onto the satellite no matter how the boat is moving. This would act in the same manner -- as the platform moves, the mount for the microwave dish would compensate and hold its line of sight with whatever it's shooting to.

What about the hurricanes?

Gibson: Hurricanes are events that pass through and in a few days, they're gone. Sometimes they wreak havoc, and sometimes they don't. But they're weather events that pass through, unlike the other, ongoing issues.

When we have weather events, whether it's a major hurricane or a simple thunderstorm, we just have to wait for them to move out of the way so we can get back out there to assess what just happened to us. First, we have to see if the platform still exists. Then, the high winds -- even from a thunderstorm -- may have blown the microwave antennas right off the platform, or just blown them out of alignment to the next platform. We might have to go back out and reposition the dish.

When that happens, do you have to go out and physically inspect each one, or is there another way to determine what the problem is?

Gibson: That's a tough question. It all depends on the platform. If the platform has a backup communications system, typically a satellite system, we're able to see the platform and make some assessment of what just happened to the primary communications. Naturally, you want to make just one trip with all the right equipment.

But not all platforms have satellite backups. So if there are still personnel out there, we'll rely on them to tell us -- we'll ask them to go look at it and try to describe what it looks like, so we can make some determination and then make a trip out.

How are they communicating with you if all the communications are out?

Gibson: We still have other ways. We have a very extensive two-way radio system, so they may be talking to the platform next to them, and that platform's relaying the information to us. We also have handheld satellite phones, and we're able to get in touch with the field that way.

So what's your work schedule like?

Gibson: We are a 24/7/365 support group. Our industry does not go to sleep -- our production facilities still flow oil and gas at night, and our drilling operations are drilling 24 hours a day. So we have to be readily available to support their needs during any crisis they might have, at any time.

We typically work a normal workday, but we have folks on call after hours. And we officially work a 40-hour week, but I'd say 50 to 60 hours is more of a typical week for me or most of the people in our IT group.

I don't think that's going to come as a surprise to Computerworld readers.

Qiana Wilson: We do offer 9/80 compressed workweeks. In other words, if you choose to, you can work nine hours a day and have every other Friday off.

Gibson: So in a two-week period, you work nine days rather than 10 days. It should be a worldwide standard. Four tens would be even better.

Wilson: I'm working on that.

How long have you had your position?

Gibson: I've been in this position for four years, but I've worked in IT with Chevron for 27 years. Actually, 27 years ago, it really wasn't IT. I'm a former Tenneco employee, and when Chevron acquired us in the '80s, we were just touching on information technology.

At the time, we were concerned more with the geological and geophysical support roles, so I was in more of a data management position. I moved from data management to applications support and programming, and from there into the infrastructure roles.

What's the most outrageous thing that's happened to you in this job?

Gibson: I would have to say the 2005 hurricane season. We were just coming out of the 2004 season, with a few bad ones in Ivan and Dennis. Then the '05 season started early, in July.

As the season progressed and built up into the Katrina/Rita-class hurricanes, we lost better than 90% of our communications infrastructure offshore. We lost our main office in New Orleans, and we lost a lot of the communications that went into that city.

[Editor's note: See Timoney Group's Google Map of the Gulf oil platforms that were damaged or destroyed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.]

Reconnecting our facilities and reestablishing communications took us all the way into the early part of 2007. We had to stop working on other optimization efforts we had going on just to focus on re-establishing communications to our environment offshore. It was definitely a big challenge for this group -- in fact, we're just really coming out of it now.

What's the biggest thing you've learned from your work?

Gibson: I would say it's the constant change in the oil industry. We're always looking to make ourselves more efficient. We're constantly moving out further and further into deeper water, so we're always having to look for technology to adapt to those environments. There's just no room for complacency. We have to be able to adapt and adjust.

The other thing I've learned is that in IT, you tend to want to chase technology a lot because you like the new gadgets. But the oil industry is the wrong place to chase technology. We need good, stable communications and infrastructure so we can keep our business operating. Chevron prides itself on being a very technological company. We don't lead, but we follow very closely.

This story, "Extreme IT: Hurricanes, high winds and heavy seas" was originally published by Computerworld.

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