Skys the Limit

Stay in touch with all of your remote offices-even the mobile ones. One savvy integrator shows you how.

A humble cotter pin launched a space-based communications revolution at oil- and gas-drilling contractor Helmerich & Payne (H&P). What the heck is a cotter pin? The answer to that question set the stage for this story.

A cotter pins help bind together sections of pipe in what are called drill-string assemblies. A worker on one of H&Ps rigs noticed a pin that did not fit properly. If the pin came loose, the rotating drill string could fly apart, endangering bystanders and causing thousands of dollars worth of damage. The worker notified supervisors at H&Ps other sites of the hazard. Several more faulty pins were found before anyone got hurt.

"That convinced our CEO that we needed to improve inter-rig communications," says Chuck Clark, who was hired as H&Ps telecommunications manager in October 1998 to find and implement a solution incorporating voice, data and video capabilities.

Clarks biggest challenge was the wide-ranging mobility of H&Ps 80 drilling rigs, which might be erected in the jungles of Venezuela or the middle of the North Sea at any given time. Clark also needed something much faster than 9.6Kbps cellular modems.

"We used cell phones where they would work, but theyre very slow and expensive. It was costing up to $3,000 per month to send e-mail" via cellular modems, he explains.

So Clark called upon FDDI-AVD Services, an integrator that has served oil and gas firms for more than 30 years.

Frame-Relay to Satellite "Our first objective was to design what I call a flat network," meaning a network thats as simple to manage as possible, says David Rutan, VP of telecommunications for FDDI-AVD Services.

"H&P already used a frame-relay network in the U.S., so we wanted to build a system that would look and act like frame relay to their technicians, whether the actual transmission medium was microwave, satellite or semaphore," he adds.

That objective posed a challenge in a system that would combine frame-relay landlines in the United States, microwave transmission to offshore rigs and satellite transmission to foreign sites. "We had to work on protocols so that everything behaved well together and all of it looked like a frame-relay network.

"For example, packet acknowledgements via satellite are delayed by a quarter-second or more. That can slow a 64Kbps link to 28K," Rutan explains. "We had to design a protocol with sliding windows that sends a bunch of packets at once and anticipates acknowledgements. That boosts throughput by 15 to 20 percent."

Router Confusion Clark also wanted to cut cell-phone bills by deploying Voice over IP at all rigs. Surprisingly, he ran into problems with VoIP on H&Ps existing Cisco routers.

"We tried VoIP on our Cisco Catalyst 3620 routers, and it just wouldnt work," he says. "We almost got it working, but it crashed the whole company network."

Rutan, who also sells Cisco, says it is not uncommon to run into incompatible software versions when working with a network that includes several generations of Cisco products. "Cisco has acquired a lot of companies lately, and getting all of their technologies integrated is an ongoing challenge," he notes.

For H&Ps far-flung operations, "We needed very robust VoIP. Motorolas is unquestionably the best," Rutan declares. Each drilling rig got a Motorola Vanguard 6430 network-access device, designed for small branch offices. H&Ps headquarters got a Vanguard 6560 MPRouter Pro network-access and concentrator platform.

The Vanguard product family "has the unique ability to identify voice traffic and give it priority over other traffic," Rutan says. "VoIP and Voice over Frame Relay are both supported. All of their routers are on the same revision of their software and speak to each other well."

The Satellite Connection Clark reviewed a number of satellite communications services. "GE Hughes, Iridium and other satellite operators were either too slow [around 19.2Kbps] or very, very expensive," he says.

Then Rutan introduced Clark to Intersat Space Communications. Founded in 1992, Intersat provides global satellite communications coverage as well as systems-integration services.

"We signed with Intersat at the right time [December 1999]. They had just leased new satellites that were not full, so we got a good deal on 10Mbps of bandwidth," says Clark.

Intersat also provided the dish antennae, satellite modems, radio transceivers and other satellite-specific hardware. H&Ps headquarters was equipped with a 3.7-meter dish, while each drilling rig had smaller 1.8-meter dishes installed.

Intersat and FDDI-AVD worked together to integrate all of the mobile components into a self-sufficient "satellite in a box" appliance.

"Physical ruggedness was very important," says Rutan, because the mobile systems are subject to harsh travel conditions, environmental hazards such as heat, rain, dust and drilling chemicals, and unreliable power sources. "We had to build in voltage regulators, line conditioners and uninterruptible power supplies. The enclosures had to be well-insulated against heat and cold, and hardened to withstand caustic materials."

A Successful Launch "Our pilot program included rigs in the Venezuelan jungle and a Mexican desert," recalls Clark. "It went extremely well. Voice quality was better than the local telephone systems, and data moved at 512Kbps" from H&Ps headquarters hub to the remote sites. Data uploads from remote sites at 128Kbps.

"We now have daily instances of safety-related communications," he says.

H&P had high expectations and FDDI-AVD met them, way up in the sky.