Inside Advanced Scale Challenges|Friday, November 17, 2017
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Energy Exec: Cloud Services Not Like Datacenters 

Simply eliminating the datacenter, embracing SaaS, and moving to cloud will not necessarily transform a company.

That, at least, was the case for DrillingInfo, which morphed from an online permit and completion mapping-database company into a fast-growing global production data provider in the oil and gas industry. The firm, which today employs about 600 people, collects data from a wealth of often public sources to help oil and gas companies "make good decisions," said Mike Couvillion, chief technology officer, in a keynote presentation at Enterprise HPC 2015 in San Diego this week.

"If you treat cloud services like your datacenter you will fail," he said.

The amount of information – often "dirty data" – DrillingInfo acquires, cleans, stores, analyzes, and shares frequently is a mix of historic, complex, and acquired on a mix of paper, floppy, and photographs, he said.

"A single seismic study of one mile by one mile grid is multi-petabytes," said Couvillion.

Leases generally involve multiple descendants and sites surveys from various public entities. There are, for example, 13 million different spellings of company names – and only 1 percent of that information is shared since oil and gas companies view this as competitive, he noted.

"They actively try to hide information from each other," said Couvillion. "This makes it extremely difficult to instill in the industry things like data management. They're about 10 years behind. When I say unstructured [data], I mean unstructured! There's no sense to it at all. It also never ages. You're dealing with geologists who are talking about rocks that are tens of thousands of years old. What's 10 years?"

Death by Dinosaur

Just because it dealt with ancient rock formations didn't mean DrillingInfo had to take a similar technological tack. Running its own datacenter was a Jurassic exercise that would result in extinction; DrillingInfo needed to get rid of IT processes like customer relationship management, human resources, and travel that did not generate income, Couvillion said.

"Almost 70 percent of our technical people were involved in those services and nobody paid for them," he said. "They were all software."

The company reduced 20 racks to two, revamped its database, and moved to SaaS for an array of applications. Yet "it was almost a failure completely," said Couvillion. "So many times we can't make a change because we can't afford to drop the balls we're juggling now."

In other words, DrillingInfo had not thought big enough. It continued to operate in its previous manner, simply swapping out SaaS for software it previously ran in-house.

To truly change, Couvillion successfully argued, it needed to send its three best developers off to create a start-up designed to beat DrillingInfo at its own business using a combination of new tools, capabilities, and culture. Some of these changes might not work but because this in-house start-up used Agile and DevOps methodologies projects were built to succeed – or fail – fast, he said.

A New Era

The start-up mentality shook up DrillingInfo's infrastructure, storage – and personnel.

"We broke out infrastructure. We move to software-based storage that I could run on lower-end hardware from SuperMicro. We moved our entire production system onto AWS," said Couvillion. "We needed to be flexible. By moving into cloud, certain things became available to us."

The company automated its build environment using AWS, Chef, and Docker, then broke apps apart into layers, then services, and lastly APIs, he said. DrillingInfo got rid of its project management office, transforming them into scrum masters, Couvillion said.

"For me, personally, I learned to shut up. I needed to stop answering those technical questions. I needed to ask those technical questions," he said. "Instead of large [groups] of development people we broke them into very small groups, focused on services and products."

Long lead times disappeared. Instead, developers had to deliver something every two weeks, supporting the company's ability to stop or start a project quickly, Couvillion said. These so-called sprints encourage developers to be creative; often, Couvillion brings in clients or prospects without notice to encourage collaboration, a process that frequently spurs developers to work through the weekend to meet a customer-requested feature, he added.

Today DrillingInfo can deploy its entire production system in 20 minutes; two years ago, it took half a day to deploy two servers, Couvillion said. In 2011, the company offered two products; today, it has more than 30, he said.

"Now developing new products is even cheaper. It's the whole arsenal behind being a SaaS-based company," said Couvillion.

The process was costly in its human toll: Most of the C-suite and other employees who didn't agree with or fit into the reorganization and refocusing left the company. But DrillingInfo's former president, for example, continues to consult to the company and many other ex-employees are on good terms with the firm because it provided them with long lead times, helped them find work, and gave them temporary office space to help in their job hunts, for example.

"Listen to the smart people," Couvillion added. "If you have smart people on board and you haven't heard from them, ask them why."

 

 

About the author: Alison Diana

Managing editor of Enterprise Technology. I’ve been covering tech and business for many years, for publications such as InformationWeek, Baseline Magazine, and Florida Today. A native Brit and longtime Yankees fan, I live with my husband, daughter, and two cats on the Space Coast in Florida.

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