Single instance

Saudi Aramco provides approximately a quarter of the world's oil. To do so, it requires a massive amount of information technology to be strategically aligned with its overall business objectives. ACN talks to Aramco's CIO, Dr Mishari, the mastermind behind Aramco’s infrastructure, about the largest SAP implementation in the world, super sized storage and the biggest Linux cluster in the Middle East.

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By  Greg Wilson Published  July 1, 2003

I|~||~||~|It’s hard to comprehend the scope of the information technology infrastructure needed to tap into and manage a quarter of the world’s oil. From the drill bit boring through the rock of the Shaybah oil field, to online procurement, Saudi Aramco has constructed a global real-time computing environment to support its 10 million barrel per day production capability.

Participating in the front line of the global economy, where the price per barrel can fluctuate wildly, has forced Saudi Aramco to streamline its operation and reduce its operating costs to the bone. Forming the backbone of its data-centric organisation is the world’s largest single database instance of SAP R/3.

The implementation has included all financial modules, procurement, project management, human resources, B2B-OIC, SAP’s Business Warehouse and industry specific applications, such as IS Oil.

Saudi Aramco’s investments have been equally impressive on the extraction side of the business — the Exploration and Petroleum Engineering Centre (EXPEC) Computer Centre hosts some of the world’s most powerful computers to process massive volumes of seismic data and produce 3D models of oil reservoirs a mile underground.

In addition, the oil & gas heavyweight manages approximately 58,000 e-mail mailboxes, has developed its own e-learning programme and operates the Middle East’s largest Linux cluster to support its unique parallel processing requirements.

||**||II|~||~||~|To manage the sprawling IT infrastructure and deliver a clear business and technology ethos, Saudi Aramco has made the ‘IT’ department a key element of its board level decision making process.

“We never looked at IT as an objective in itself,” says Dr Ibrahim Mishari, vice president of information technology & chief information officer (CIO), for Saudi Aramco. “Technology is a means to achieve our objective of discovering and producing oil & gas at the lowest cost. We are always looking for solutions that will fit our needs,” he adds.

Throughout Aramco’s operations runs the mantra of lower cost — greater productivity. To deliver ‘more for less’, the IT organisation has maintained tight centralised control on the company’s IT development to guarantee standardisation. “We have a very simple approach to [managing IT,]” says Dr Mishari.“ The secret is to keep a standard approach to solutions, so all the files talk to each other, and to manage the cost, the reliability and uptime of the [IT environment,]” he adds.

Saudi Aramco has adhered to a strictly centralised IT strategy since it deployed its first computer in 1958. Centralised control ensures close corporation between the business divisions and the IT organisation. For instance, all application deployment is done in conjunction with the relevant user community.

“Individual applications, whether it is a module within SAP or another application, will be defined by whoever is requesting it. Once we find a solution that is applicable, [we both] market it internally and it becomes a standard within the organisation,” says Dr Mishari.

“Applications are justified jointly by IT and the requesting organisation and sold to the management of the business of that organisation. If it needs to go higher up, we take it there together and are accountable for it,” he adds.

||**||III|~||~||~|The tight integration between business and technology has encouraged Saudi Aramco to embrace a solution approach, which inherently shies away from standalone applications. SAP R/3 is the prime example of organisation’s desire to embrace an integrated environment and standardise its operations.

After nearly two years of assessment, Saudi Aramco began the migration away from its collection of integrated mainframe applications in 1997. R/3 delivered an instant solution to two operational headaches — the increasingly expensive maintenance and evolution of the mainframe applications and the opportunity to absorb information islands that had emerged within the organisation with the advent of the PC/server era. “We had been benefiting from a number of worldwide applications [on the mainframe],” explains Dr Mishari.

“However, in the early 1990s, as PC/server based applications [emerged], many islands of information started showing up in the company. We [decided] to get rid of them [with] SAP,” he adds.

Currently, Saudi Aramco has retired approximately 80% of its mainframe applications. The initial phase of the project went live in November 1999, when Aramco switched its ‘organisational’ structure. In June 2002, Saudi Aramco went live with the main modules of SAP, including the business warehouse. “SAP R/3 moved the organisation away from batch processing, where decision support and reporting was done the following day, to a real time computing environment,” comments Dr Mishari.

“Decisions used to be taken based on the shortage of data. [We] had to spend a long time collecting and presenting [data] in an understandable form. The business warehouse collects the data and generates reports quickly. It makes decision making more timely and more thorough,” he adds.

||**||IV|~||~||~|Another core SAP module is B2B-OIC, which has enabled it to automate supplier relationships across the internet. For example, the B2B module has streamlined the procurement of materials for its daily maintenance operations from local and international suppliers. “We have [opened] up that system to our suppliers through our catalogue, whereby an order is written and we don’t have it in the inventory, it generates a requirement from [our] suppliers [catalogue,],” says Dr Mishari.

Aramco plans to take more of its procurement processes to the internet, as the local and international supplier market evolves. Since it started working with its local suppliers in 1997, Saudi Aramco has hosted several seminars to educate its partners. Currently, Aramco carries many of its own supplier catalogues, however, this will change as the market evolves.

R/3 project work hasn’t stopped as Aramco continues to migrate applications to its Sun Solaris Unix environment. According Dr Mishari, it is likely to take another two years to fully migrate from the mainframe. Furthermore, the company is constantly assessing new SAP modules when they become available to see whether they suitable for deployment within Aramco.

“SAP is a continuing solution… We have declared that if there is a solution available on R/3 then we’re going to adopt it,” he adds.

||**||V|~||~||~|Performance Management will be the next module to go live, providing the foundation for an enhanced human resources approach within the company. The project has required extensive analysis of job competencies that will go on to form the core for employee self service assessments and define educational benchmarks for the oil & gas giant’s e-learning strategy. “[The system] will measure the performance of employees,” says Dr Mishari. “All employees will be defined within the system for the purpose of doing self assessment.”

Additional SAP modules that are currently on the implementation schedule include aviation/aerospace maintenance, van management and communication management modules.

Although SAP R/3 has helped streamline processes and reduce operating costs, it is Saudi Aramco’s bleeding edge use of visualisation technologies that has significantly enhanced the efficiency of its exploration operations. The oil & gas giant deployed its initial 16 processor, SGI Onyx 3000 supercomputer to power oil field simulations in September 1999. Since then, Aramco has added another three visualisation centres to increase the accuracy and cost effectiveness of its drilling operations.

Sensors attached to a drill bit can beam data directly back to the EXPEC Computer Centre (ECC) in Dhahran via satellite uplinks, providing up to the minute readings on residence, pressure, temperature and other drilling variables. The raw seismic information, when combined with the existing data on the area, provides geologists and geophysicists with a picture of drilling progress and can help predict future well development. “Progress [on the drilling] can be seen here in headquarters, where they [geologists and geophysicists] have a real time picture, like a colour camera they run underground,” explains Dr Mishari.
Logging-while-drilling (LWD) data enables Aramco to adjust its operations to follow the richest stream through the rock. Geosteering techniques helped Aramco to boost the efficiency by 60% of some horizontal wells in the Haradh area of the Ghawar oil field. It was able to reduce cycle times by 30% on the same wells. “Geosteering lets us ask the drilling foreman to move right, left, up or down with the horizontal travel, following the stream with the maximum pay,” says Dr Mishari. “Staying with the path most saturated with oil helps up increase the productivity. As a result one well can be as productive as five previous wells,” he adds.

||**||VI|~||~||~|To cope with the massive data processing requirements necessary to run well simulations Aramco has deployed a 1800 CPU Beowulf cluster using the Linux operating system. The Linux/Intel cluster on IBM creates a highly parallel computing environment to run pre-stack time and depth migration (PSTM/PTDM) applications, using an in-house developed PSTM algorithm. “The Linux cluster is an example of where the largest available computers couldn’t solve the problem. The Linux cluster is the most cost effective solution,” says Dr Mishari.

ECC is also responsible for the management of vast volumes of data generated by a variety of seismic tests. According to statistics from Saudi Aramco, ECC receives around 20 billion seismic traces, which is approximately 100 terabytes of seismic data annually. Production data is managed through a storage area network (SAN). ECC uses the SAN as the common hard drive for its number crunching servers, which filters down raw seismic data into a meaningful interpretation. Raw seismic data is kept permanently, because although the raw data itself will change, how it can be interpreted by technology can and will change. Currently, Aramco has “thousands of terabytes,” of seismic data on stored on tape, says Dr Mishari.

Saudi Aramco’s consumption of information technology will continue unabated as it faces up to the competitive challenges posed by other global oil producers, the task of tapping into higher value/higher risk oil reserves and constant price uncertainty.

To retain its position as the leading global producer of oil & gas, it is not enough to have access to Saudi Arabia’s enormous oil reserves — the organisation must streamline its operation further, maintain its margins and deploy solutions that will enable it to meet the changing needs of the business. ||**||

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