How Oil & Gas Can Bridge the Gap Between IT and OT

To manage the vast amounts of data now being generated by industrial equipment, companies are moving beyond their legacy IT infrastructure.

By Calvin Hennick

By Calvin Hennick January 30, 2020

Exploring new sources. Placing big bets. Keeping operations safe and reliable. These are just a few things that make oil and gas companies successful. Over the years, technologies that run their business have evolved and become more critical – maybe none more dramatically than data center and IoT innovations – which has made digital transformation a business imperative.

Traditionally, for oil and gas companies, information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) have had very different purposes — and, therefore, very different needs. Large equipment did the heavy lifting in the field, servers and storage appliances moved the ones and zeroes around back in the corporate data center, and there often wasn’t much crossover between the two.

Those days are largely over.

Energy companies today use field sensors and connected machinery to monitor the health of equipment, conduct predictive analytics exercises, and engage in a host of other data-intensive activities outside of the data center. This creates a pressing need to connect the network edge to the core, and to integrate the entire environment in a way that simplifies operations and allows the business to scale.

“There’s a disconnect today between IT and OT,” Jeremy Ross, cloud architect for Nutanix, said in a recent webinar addressing tech challenges for oil and gas companies. “Historically, that’s always been the case. But as the world continues to evolve … this is creating some friction.”

“What has happened, as the requirements of IT continue to expand, IT has begun deploying their standardized infrastructure in the same locations as OT,” added Todd Nelson, formerly a global systems engineer for Nutanix. 

“And so what organizations have found is that there is a lot of overlap of hardware and licensing, and really just a lack of standardization between the two groups, as there’s not a lot of cross communication.”

[Watch the webcast on demand: Bridging the Gap Between IT and OT

The webinar discussed the specific challenges that IT/OT convergence creates for oil and gas companies, as well as how organizations are meeting those challenges head-on.

Three Main Struggles

Three chief challenges related to the growing overlap between IT and OT environments were identified in the webinar. The first is cost: As organizations purchase redundant hardware and software for both environments, they become less efficient.

Secondly, oil and gas companies often struggle with process issues, and internal stakeholders are sometimes unsure of what to expect when making requests from different departments.

“With all of this redundant hardware, with all of this licensing sprawl, you find that the internal services are really duplicated in a lot of instances,” Nelson said. “This can cause misalignment issues, and can really impact quality of service. A user might be accustomed to a certain quality of service with the IT group, and then when they make a similar request to the OT group, they may not receive that same standard.”

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Finally, organizations often find that data management becomes more of a challenge as they take in more information from both their IT and OT environments.

“With IT now having a presence in these field locations and on the edge, there’s now an overlap which creates confusion and leads to questions like, ‘What data are we really gathering from the field, whose responsibility is it, and how do we manage it?’ So there are really a lot of these questions that need to be answered.”

Seeking Solutions

Ross noted that oil and gas companies are seeking solutions that speed up their time to market, can scale up without disrupting operations and are as simple as possible.

“The more complexity we introduce into the environment, the more likelihood that things will go wrong,” he said. “So creating a push-button operation is pretty important. And we have to have a foundation that breeds continuous innovation. We know that the world is not done with evolving technology.”

To bridge the gap between IT and OT across the edge, core data centers and the public cloud, Nelson said organizations must adopt a cloud operating system. He added that it’s unrealistic for tech leaders to think that they can leverage their legacy investments for this purpose.

“In a legacy environment, there are so many disparate technologies that it’s very difficult to create a cohesive, automated solution,” Nelson said. “A lot of these individual components require an independent management plane and an independent set of APIs.”

The webinar highlighted the ways that Nutanix can streamline and simplify efforts to integrate IT and OT environments. For one, Nutanix leverages commodity hardware to create a scalable Distributed Storage Fabric (DSF) that can be upgraded in place non-disruptively, rather than requiring cumbersome “lift-and-shifts.” The software helps companies leverage multi-cloud services and establish a hybrid cloud IT operation.

The webinar explained that organizations can choose the Acropolis Hypervisor (AHV), a lightweight, portable option that is included free of charge to run on every node – or else opt for Hyper-V or ESXi, depending on preference. Importantly for oil and gas companies, users have their choice of hardware, including the lesser-known ruggedized solutions that are often used for Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) applications.

They explained how Nutanix Prism Central allows IT professionals to view their company’s entire infrastructure, from storage all the way up the stack to the application layer, in a simply designed interface. The software allows organizations to deploy clusters in just minutes, and to manage infrastructure across geographic regions. With visibility into metrics and alerts throughout their entire environment, IT leaders are able to troubleshoot more quickly and effectively, Nelson and Ross noted.

Infrastructure In Action

One of the world’s largest exploration and production companies deployed Nutanix to improve its management of the deluge of data flowing from its connected field devices, said Nelson.

“The business said, ‘We have all these devices in the field, and we need a better way to manage that data flow from these field devices back to a regional site, and then back to a data center so management can apply reporting and further analytics to that data,’” he recalled. He explained how the company deploys an OT and IT stack at each of its numerous regions around the world, with each site running the same 15 applications in similar ways.

Historically, it’s taken the company three to four months to deploy and configure infrastructure at a new site. After adopting Nutanix, that timeline shrunk down to a day and a half — a time savings of nearly 96 percent.

Ross noted that, for this company, Nutanix eliminated the need to repeat configuration processes over and over again across multiple sites — allowing the company to deploy its infrastructure in a uniform fashion and then manage it centrally over time.

“It’s a game-changer,” Ross said.

Calvin Hennick is a contributing writer. His work appears in BizTech, Engineering Inc., The Boston Globe Magazine and elsewhere. He is also the author of Once More to the Rodeo: A Memoir. Follow him on Twitter @CalvinHennick.

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