Back to the future—the return of the standard data model?

Editor Neil McNaughton reports from PNEC panel comprising BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell.

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There was an interesting panel session at the 2009 PNEC Data Integration Conference last month (full report on page 6 of this issue) on the topic of ‘standard data models.’ Twenty years ago or thereabouts the standard data model was all the rage and very considerable amounts of industry money were poured into efforts such as Epicentre, Project Discovery, and POSC/Caesar. A smaller amount of money (but a lot of time) was also put into PPDM. What did the panel have to say on the subject in 2009?

The panel comprised co-chairs Cora Poché (Shell) and Mark McDermott (ConocoPhillips Alaska) along with Rusty Foreman (BP), Mike Ryan (ExxonMobil) and Mike Underwood (Chevron).

McDermott stated that ConocoPhillips is trying to globalize support and is getting interested in data models and integration. But the panel’s chosen topic, the ‘standard data model’ (SDM) has failed to gain traction. It has proved hard to overcome the lack of business sponsorship and recognition of the importance of the SDM. There are trade-offs between short term cost and long term benefits and interoperability maybe in users’ interests but not necessarily in the interest of a vendor! Perhaps a data integration layer is the way forward—anyway, ‘you need to put in your own effort.’

Poché’s field is seismic data management. Shell’s SDM (built around Landmark’s CDS solution) has been implemented across several business units and makes for easier support. Cross discipline data integration is easier with the SDM. The issues are cost and complexity.

Foreman stated that BP has looked into the SDM, but ‘people want what they want—and may have many reasons why they want different stuff from a standard.’ Foreman’s unit is working on a common solution for wells seismics and logs. But BP’s decentralized model meant that some potential early adopters had ‘rolled their own’ and opted out of the standard. Foreman’s team identified some serious deficiencies in the assets’ own solutions and eventually they came on board. The moral is that, left to their own devices, business units will do their own thing. But if we can show a better answer they will buy in.

Ryan noted that all data has entropy. Its natural state is chaos. If you leave data alone, it will ‘mutate, replicate and consume all available resources!’ Even the SDM is unstable. It is against nature and needs energy input to keep it in a stable condition. Exxon views data as a corporate asset. Oils no longer own drilling rigs. ‘We are knowledge workers who turn data into decisions.’ The bottom line is that businesses must own the data and pay the bill for keeping entropy at bay. Conversely, an SDM must support business processes.

Underwood agreed—good data drives better decisions. All are aware of the promise of the ‘digital oilfield.’ But are we keeping up with managing the data? Chevron experiences problems sharing and synchronizing data between disciplines. Requests for information can take days to fulfill. Data silos offer resistance to data flows. These problems have been ignored for too long. Noting previous failures, Underwood questioned whether the SDM was the right answer. The need to manage data remains but you need the right technology. Chevron’s thinking is that master data management is the way forward (see our report on Chevron’s Keystone MDM initiative on page 1 of this issue).

I thought that these answers seem to be ducking the issue a bit. The bona fide industry SDMs hardly got a mention. We haven’t heard from POSC/Energistics’ Epicentre SDM in almost a decade but we have frequently reported on putative deployment of PPDM. I formulated such musings in a question—who is using PPDM?

The answers were not as clear cut as I had hoped. Exxon is in the process of finishing a major upgrade of its own corporate data store. This has taken five years to tune to business workflows and will take another year to deploy, migrate, plug in data feeds and train. This has been a huge investment and is ‘not going to be swapped out in the near future.’ BP uses Schlumberger’s Finder in most business units, with a PPDM instance in Canada. There is no SDM in BP today although there is a growing recognition of the need to get to ‘a common place.’ Foreman noted that despite PPDM’s broad coverage, there will always be other systems on the edge of the SDM’s core.

Schlumberger consultant Steve Hawtin disagrees strongly with the whole SDM concept. According to Hawtin, Epicentre failed because each subject matter domain needs different things in its database. Even different instances of the same commercial database can be inconsistent. ‘There is no perfect platonic representation of a well!’ Hawtin does like systems of record and master data and wondered if there was any chance of seeing such in our lifetimes. Foreman thought that an E&P SDM was unlikely. Ryan and Underwood were less skeptical. IHS’ Richard Herman wondered if the whole SDM thing was ‘just too damn hard.’ But a database schema, hidden behind the firewall, is a ‘necessary evil.’ Data can then be delivered in any format over the web. This met with general approval from the panel. Flexible data access, round the world and round the clock, is the answer. How this is achieved just doesn’t seem to matter anymore.

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