All About Optimization

When Charles Cox, manager of telecommunications systems at Parker Drilling, began looking for a replacement for the company's outmoded UHF/VHF radio communications system in 2000, the requirements were stringent.

The Houston-based drilling company operates oil and natural-gas rigs in some of the world's most remote oilfields, including the shores of the Caspian Sea, Papua New Guinea, and Russia's Sakhalin Islands. The new system had to operate from rigs hundreds of miles out at sea, be completely portable, and carry both voice and data traffic -- which meant a satellite-based network. Above all, it had to be economical, says Cox: "Satellite bandwidth is expensive -- up to $400 a month for 64 Kbit/s," he points out, "so we had to make sure we created a network that would be as efficient as possible."

It was evident that the new system would be some form of VSAT, or very small aperture terminal, a satellite communications system that combines a terrestrial transceiver that has a direct line-of-sight connection to a satellite in orbit with an indoor device that links the transceiver to the end-user laptop or phone.

The U.S. government had been using VSAT for years, and it offered the offshore oil-drilling industry an effective way to communicate with on-land base stations. The problem was, as Cox notes above, it was expensive. He looked at several solutions before settling on the NetPerformer voice-and-data router from Verso Technologies Inc. (Nasdaq: VRSO), featuring a software option that allows managers to use a single satellite frequency to broadcast to multiple rigs. (See Hopeful Satellite Signs.)

Verso's system had two primary appeals, says Cox: One is the fact that it can carry both IP and legacy protocols (such as ATM or frame-relay) over a single wide-area network link. The other is bandwidth optimization: The router uses sophisticated quality-of-service (QOS) algorithms to compress voice and data traffic together over a single transmission path.

"From our standpoint, we don’t care what the customer runs," explains Verso vice president of global accounts Greg Kustudia. "In a 10-site network, you could have five sites running on IP, three running on frame relay, and two running on ATM, and they would all still be able to communicate with one another. This flexibility translates to a better ROI by allowing you to use the most cost-effective network transport on a site by site basis."

The Verso technology, says Cox, "allows us to transmit 64 Kbit/s of information from a particular location, typically an offshore rig sharing a cloud of bandwidth with other rigs. That gives us two phone calls, plus data communications, all simultaneously within that 64K."

Data communications from remote rigs are crucial because the drilling computers transmit a continuous stream of information on well conditions and the machinery back to Parker's operations center in Houston -- allowing technicians in Texas to essentially peer down an oil well thousands of miles away, in real-time

In Parker's case, it makes the most sense to send all of the company's traffic -- both voice and data communications -- using frame relay.

"They're encapsulating all of their voice and data traffic into frame relay packets and passing it over the satellite network," says Kustudia.

"We looked at several VOIP solutions," Cox adds. "But they just weren't cost-effective. If we used a typical VOIP system, I'd have to double my costs to get the same throughput for voice and data."

In other words, the VSAT network combined with Verso routers saves Parker several hundred dollars a month, per rig. As the oil industry goes after ever-more remote pockets of energy with increasingly sophisticated exploration and drilling equipment, that sort of ROI becomes ever more critical.

"My IT budget typically grows every year as the deployments escalate worldwide," points out Cox. "Right now we're looking at increases of 9 to 14 percent a year."

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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