Networking pros in the energy industry have to provide wide area network (WAN) connectivity where the fossil fuels are, regardless of whether the site has any broadband access. Hess Corp. uses satellite Internet connections and mobile broadband to provide access where wires cannot reach, from a deepwater drilling vessel off the coast of West Africa to production facilities in remote regions of North Dakota.
"If you're offshore in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico or [you're in the] Algerian desert -- or even if [you're] drilling in [parts of] North Dakota or Pennsylvania where there's no cellular coverage -- you have to [use satellite Internet connections]," said Ian Primrose, manager of global telecommunications at Hess. "We [establish a wireless WAN connection] through whatever means we can, really."
Providing WAN access for users near large cities even in developing countries -- including Jakarta and Rio de Janeiro -- is rarely a challenge for Primrose and his networking team. Mobile broadband technology, such as 3G, extends the reach with a wireless WAN connection. But costly satellite Internet connections are sometimes the only choice in remote parts of the globe.
"Most of the time, in the major cities ... it's not really an issue. We can use any number of the major providers," Primrose said. "It gets more interesting when you get out to the remote areas for exploration or production; and, typically, there we use satellite a lot."
In areas where traditional broadband access is poor and 3G is unavailable, Hess uses Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) services to connect users back to the WAN via secure sockets layer virtual private network (SSL VPN) gateways in five larger regional offices -- two in North America, one in Europe and two in Asia. The gateways are managed by MegaPath, a managed service provider (MSP).
Users don't require wireless WAN connectivity just for their centralized files and applications. The Internet has become a bigger part of how Hess has done business over the years, Primrose said.
"People just take it for granted now," he said. "They expect to be able to get off a plane in Beijing, turn their BlackBerry on, get their email, go to the hotel, log in and get everything they need. You can do that pretty much anywhere where there's infrastructure, but you can't do that in [parts of] North Dakota or the Algerian desert."
Ensuring performance over wireless WAN and satellite Internet connections
Although wireless WAN connections may provide access, it far from guarantees acceptable performance. The satellite Internet connections that Hess uses typically offer less than 1 Mbps of throughput, which is further clipped by the latency data suffers from the roundtrip between Earth's surface and orbiting satellites.
"You're going 25,000 miles up and back. When you do the math, at the speed of light, you've got a latency of 600 milliseconds roundtrip," Primrose said. "[Users] go home and get 12 megabits on their cable [connection] for 50 bucks a month, and then they go to work and they're sharing 768 kilobits."
Hess recently began outsourcing its day-to-day network management to IBM, allowing Primrose and the networking team to focus on mitigating latency. In an effort to conserve bandwidth, Hess has restricted certain websites, given priority to key user groups, and dedicated specific windows of network time to important transactions. Primrose's team uses quality of service (QoS) to prioritize business applications over HTTP traffic.
Using virtual desktops at satellite-connected land and maritime sites has also helped minimize the effects of latency, Primrose said.
"[Latency] causes some application problems, but we get around that by using thin clients," he said. "The PC just runs a Citrix client, which takes a lot less bandwidth [because] it's just refreshing the screen."
At some locations using wireless WAN connections -- either satellite or cellular -- Hess has deployed WAN optimization controllers from Expand Networks to minimize throughput and latency issues.
"They never deliver the 10x improvement that the salesman will tell you, but they definitely help," Primrose said. "We don't do it everywhere, but we certainly have put it on some targeted links -- especially on some of those satellite links, which is where you get the most benefits."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer