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Automating System Rewrites for Hazardous Field Sites: Smart Recovery for the Oil and Gas Industry


Justifiably renowned as having some of the most harsh and dangerously unforgiving of work environments, field equipment used by the fossil fuels industry must meet stringent, highly reliable safety and performance benchmarks. In such environments, commercial PCs are so short-lived as to be practically useless. Because of the tremendous technology features and optimizations that Ethernet, enterprise information technology and communications (IT), and the Internet have to offer, industrial-grade PCs—or IPCs— have been steadily advancing, driving industrial automation forward by connecting traditional IA networks with the robust features and capabilities of modern IT technology. Consequently, with industrial PCs now creeping into every nook and cranny along the production and supply lines, IPCs—based as they are on the commercial PC technology from which they evolved—are also bringing along the whole spectrum of problems that anyone in a networked office routinely encounters.

The allure of IPCs are the exponential gains they offer in data processing, communications, networking efficiency, and analytical speed thanks to their Ethernet-compatible IT architecture; unfortunately, because IT was not engineered for fault-free, real time operations, that same increase in volume means that faults and errors will occur. Thus, while IPCs do offer great increases in speed and efficiency, their complexity and design specifications mean they are also significantly more error-prone than traditional IA devices. Without compensating for these effects, over time slowdowns and concomitant failures are guaranteed. As more information is processed, more and more ostensibly trivial data and coding faults occur. Eventually, those faults reach a breaking point: IPCs will slow down. Eventually, they will fail. For these reasons, device slowdowns, failure, and downtime prevention are the foremost topics in mind wherever IPC solutions are considered.

Fortunately, we are talking about the world of automated machinery, here. Solutions are available that allow engineers to just drop a machine in place and more-or-less forget about it until it finally up-and-dies. For field IPCs deployed in hazardous fossil fuel production, transport, or delivery facilities, an automated OS backup and recovery system should be considered a basic requirement—but that’s not enough. Recoveries are only useful after failure has already occurred, so the more important question is how best to prevent those failures. The answer, of course, is a better designed OS recovery system.

With these challenges to adapting IPCs into an industrial environment in mind, three key features are imperative for guaranteeing the high reliability and availability IA engineers will require.

1. Because IPCs will slow down over time, cutting performance, engineers should be able to configure periodic, automated system cleanups with full OS rewrites. With careful observation and diagnostics, these periodic maintenance interruptions will significantly improve long-term performance and availability.

2. Engineers should be able to configure the system for effective predictive maintenance. This means that thorough, component-level self-monitoring should be available to protect against the effects of corrosion, extreme temperatures, humidity, and sedimentation. In this way, many failures may be averted before the system goes offline.

3. Sending an engineer to an offshore platform or remote pumping station incurs high expense, and repair times can sometimes be measured in days. Engineers should not, therefore, need to be present for software rescues. Remote and local triggering of the IPC’s rewrite system should be considered fundamental, and ideally should automatically initiate whenever the platform goes offline. With such an automated failsafe in place, engineers will have a powerful tool for diagnosing the reasons behind a permanent failure: if the device cannot come back online even after the OS has been re-written, then the most likely cause is a hardware failure of some sort.

Moxa’s features a line of IPCs optimized for field-use in the oil and gas industry, meeting all the basic standards for hazardous and harsh environments. Additionally, these specialized computers are equipped with Smart Recovery™, all of the intelligent features described above. Three recovery modes are available, to ensure system stability and performance:

1. Periodical recoveries clean up system memory, releasing and renewing poorly allocated resources.

2. Fast recovery configurations may be remotely triggered to reset the system, either by administrators or automatically, when an SNMP trap is received. This can take the form of a simple soft restart, or a full OS over-write.

3. As a last resort, auto-recovery configurations may be configured to attempt automated system rewrites whenever a crash occurs, even when remote administration is unavailable.

In addition to these powerful features, Moxa’s IPCs are also beginning to apply SNMP in unique and innovative ways, expanding its capacity for monitoring and control. For instance, one improvement offered by the use of SNMP as the configuration interface is that Smart Recovery may be easily configured from the NMS to automatically rewrite across every computer in a mass deployment, delivering massive time savings to network engineers. These enhancements, taken together, give IA engineers within the oil and gas industry a powerful, convenient, effective tool for dramatically increasing the reliability and availability of their networked IT devices.

Whereas in decades past the PCs used in industrial environments were installed only in climate-controlled, protected offices, serving SCADAs and other human-machine interfaces, the advances of the last ten years have brought us a new breed of IPCs. These computers have so blurred the line between traditional controllers (like RTUs or PLCs) and personal computers that even seasoned engineers are now having a hard time deciding which devices should are best applied where. With this new generation of highly dependable, extremely durable, high-performance industrial PCs, IA engineers gain an unprecedented power of remote monitoring and control, one that is adaptable to any conceivable algorithm, no matter how farfetched the application may see. With these tools suitably optimized, the oil and gas industry now has a new means of increasing efficiency, safety, and reliability in a most convenient and familiar IT package.

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