IT goes offshore - BHP's Liverpool Bay Field (November 1996)

BHP Petroleum explains how it has marshalled its IT resources to facilitate the operating of the Liverpool Bay field off the north west coast of England

An oil company operating offshore has to balance a number of production, commercial and financial factors in developing an oil and gas field. They can be summarized as producing at a cost commensurate with earnings at the required level of return on the investment at the market price for gas and oil, but without compromising safety in any way. In achieving this, IT has a vital role to play by making a viable contribution to this business objective. For BHP Petroleum, developers of the Liverpool Bay Field, their IT strategy has been driven by the need to maximize the use of IT across the whole range of operations in the Field. Everything including production, instrumentation, maintenance, finance, E-mail, condition monitoring, even flight planning, is computerized. The result is up to 20 MIS software applications ranging from Logica's PRODIS production reporting system and Salem's personnel tracking system, to the Brown & Root OMNIDOC electronic document system and Microsoft's Office suite. There is nothing especially innovative in the use of these packages by themselves. What is different is the way the field's computing resources have been deployed. Wherever possible they are located offshore where they are needed, with their supervision based onshore.

Reducing risks and costs

This meets one of BHP's prime aims which is to keep the number of people working offshore to a minimum level as a way of reducing safety risks and costs. There are less than 100 people actually working in the field, none of whom are IT staff, with the result that three of its four platforms are unmanned. The key elements in achieving this are a 70 mile undersea FDDI Backbone Local Area Network which, in conjunction with microwave line of sight links, connects all the platforms with BHP's Point-of-Air gas terminal in North Wales and an oil storage installation moored in the Irish Sea; and the use of remote management and monitoring techniques to ensure the network, the computers attached to it, and of course the end users keep working.

Microwave links

The LAN operates at a full 100 Mbps and consists of mono-mode fiber cable bound with the electricity cables and laid underwater between the platforms. Microwave links provide the connection between the manned Douglas platform and the oil barge and the Point-of-Air terminal. Through a military specified optical connector, an offshore support vessel can plus into the LAN at any of the platforms at which it docks and, in the event of having to pull away, break the connection without damaging the optical fibers. Access One hubs from UB networks are installed on every platform and at the gas terminal with SUN and Hewlett-Packard UNIX servers on the Douglas platform and at Point-of-Air. Through Ethernet switching 10 Mbps is delivered via Category 5 cabling to the end user Compaq PCs. Up to 80 of these are installed, 30 of them offshore including one on the support vessel. On the Douglas platform and at the Point-of-Air they are connected to Novell LANs running of Compaq PC servers.


The networking infrastructure ensure that each of the management information systems can be accessed by all relevant personnel, irrespective of where they are stationed whether offshore or onshore. It means, for example, that the support vessel, once it is plugged into the LAN, can call up the maintenance documents held on the OMNIDOC system if it encounters a faulty piece of equipment on one of the unmanned platforms. Indeed, the need to store our maintenance and engineering documentation electronically and access them instantly were major factors behind the use of high speed communications. When the network and IT facilities were designed two years' ago, there was no precedent for them. They still are state of the art and only now are similar installations being built for the North Sea.

Remote management

Given its importance in the field's operations, it is vital that the network and computing resources are continually monitored and managed to ensure they are always available to users. From the outset, BHP decided this should be outsourced. To BHP this is an overhead requiring dedicated equipment and a wide range of expansive technical skills, their expertise lying in oil and gas discovery and production. They believe that IT services can be more cost effectively provided by an outside specialist organization. In a contract worth 1.3m over three years, and believed to be the first of its kind in the UK, BHP has appointed IT Services Group, Wakebourne, to undertake the management of its IT infrastructure. "BHP demanded a total solution for managing the network, the devices attached to it and the applications running over it" explains Wakebourne's marketing manager, Colin Williams, "and given BHP's policy of limiting offshore manning levels it had to be undertaken remotely. Our ultimate aim is to keep end users working by identifying and remedying faults and solving any problems they encounter on their computers."


"At first it was not clear whether this was possible" he adds, "but in a series of trials on a pre-commissioned network we demonstrated we could provide such a service with offshore visits few and restricted to the replacement of faulty parts." The service is all embracing, involving network management and control; PC applications and operating system support; PC network and UNIX server administration and support; SUN/Oracle and NT/Oracle database application support, third party hardware maintenance and the provision of a dedicated Help Desk. The ultimate aim is to keep end users working by isolating and remedying faults and solving any problems they encounter on their computers. The service is run from Wakebourne's network management center in Hanworth and systems management center in Coventry, both of which are connected to the BHP network of Point-of-Air by Kilostream links. The former is responsible for the network, the PCs and their applications, while Coventry is concerned with the UNIX environment consisting of the servers, applications and databases.


Given the diverse nature of the IT elements involved, it is not surprising that a diverse range of management tools are employed by Wakebourne. Providing the base SNMP functionality for the network components (hubs and routers), and its attached devices such as servers, is HP OpenView with the detailed monitoring, e.g. front views of the hubs and the state of LEDs on each module, being undertaken by UN Network's NetDirector management platform. The Novell environment is managed by their ManageWise solution augmented by Intel's LANDesk Manager. Part of Wakebourne's brief is to monitor the network performance and usage to determine whether changes should be made to increase capacity or reconfigure it. To obtain the more detailed statistics needed to meet this requirement, AXON RMON probes are' deployed. In real time these look at traffic and user activity such as packet rates, the top ten users, traffic bottlenecks and error rates, correlating them to individual users rather than just the network in general. Such information reveals what is causing a problem, e.g. is it collisions, excess traffic, particular users or applications, and decisions can be taken on whether to add new network segments for example.

User-related problems

All faults are reported to Wakebourne's Coventry Help Desk which determines which of the two management centers has responsibility for the fault. The fault is logged into the Remedy Action Request system which presents the relevant Help Desk personnel with details of the location of the user's system. The majority of problems are not, however, associated with the hardware or the network operation. Most are user related, typically concerned with not being able to log on or with difficulties with an application or accessing a database. The most important aspects of the management scenario are, therefore, the Help Desk, the ability to take over users' terminals and the ability to drill down into the UNIX databases to identify problems with them. By remotely capturing through Intel's LANDesk Manager the users' PC screens and keyboards from their management centers, Wakebourne can identify the problem, correct it or, through the Help Desk, advise users as to what they are doing wrong. The large databases inherent in BHP's UNIX programs require extensive administration and housekeeping including such factors as storage issues, usage information, database tuning and capacity planning.

Continual refinement

Wakebourne's solution is to use Compuware's EcoTOOLS to monitor the databases and diagnose database problems. Agents sent into the database monitor data for events, changing values, patterns and trends against pre-defined criteria. From this they can direct problems such as which database areas are filling up or which applications' processes are heavy processor users and then alert the Help Desk. It is an operation of continual refinement in which the personality of the database is built up and fine tuned, allowing the administrator to become closer and closer to the nature of the particular application and its performance. A general view is also kept to trap unexpected, i.e. not previously experienced, performance problems. EcoTOOLS provide very specific information about what is causing a problem, e.g. if the end user reports that the database is running slow the system will discover the reason whether it is a user or the application. If necessary, EcoTOOLS will also undertake the appropriate corrective action. The combination of BHP's IT strategy and Wakebourne's remote management capabilities and tools has produced a viable IT solution which provides definable business and operational benefits. Without it the development and exploitation of the Liverpool Bay Field may not have proved

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