CIO interview: Andrew Marks, Tullow Oil

How speeding up seismic data transfer between African oil fields and a Dublin datacentre helps the London-based oil exploration company save millions

When you’re in the business of finding oil and gas, keeping the machinery of IT well lubricated is key. For Andrew Marks, CIO of London-based Tullow Oil, a big part of that is about making sure the company’s geophysicists and engineers have speedy, reliable access to the systems and services they require to act quickly when out in the field.

A relatively young player in the oil industry, Tullow has seen phenomenally high growth since it was founded in the mid-1980s by CEO Aidan Heavey in the small town 35 miles south of Dublin from which it takes its name. In less than 20 years the company has increased its revenues from around $7.5m in 1986 to $2.65bn in 2013, tripling the number of countries in which it operates from eight to 24, with particularly notable successes in Africa.

According to the New York Times, in 2012 the company’s drilling success rate was more than 70% – twice that of the industry average. Marks, who joined as CIO seven years ago, has presided over Tullow’s IT operations during a period when it has more than doubled in size.

As well as ensuring staff have all the essential business systems common to any organisation, oil companies such as Tullow need to do some pretty heavy number-crunching and data analysis.

 “The big volume is seismic data. We’re effectively building a ‘sound map’ of the subsurface and getting back a visual map that pinpoints the most fruitful areas for exploration and drilling,” says Marks.

We’re building a ‘sound map’ of the subsurface and getting back a visual map that pinpoints the most fruitful areas for exploration

Andrew Marks, Tullow Oil

Acting quickly on data

Not surprisingly, there are only a limited number of suppliers that specialise in systems for seismic data analysis and mapping, so competing oil exploration companies use much the same tools – in Tullow’s case, a system from high-performance parallel storage specialist Panasas

Differentiation is not so much about the systems you use as how efficiently you use them. “Operations teams need to process massive volumes of data, and if we want to deliver maximum value, we need to turn it around as quickly as we can,” says Marks.

Once Tullow’s geophysicists have identified a promising area, the sooner they can map the subsurface, the more cost-efficiently the company can operate. 

“Access to acreage comes at a cost and with a finite time window in which we can operate. The faster we can obtain data from the field and run it through our processing units in Dublin, the greater the value Tullow can add,” says Marks. 

“If we can quickly identify the best areas to drill while a data acquisition is still in progress, we can often reduce the area we need to acquire data over. And if we can, say, avoid 10% of that acquisition expenditure it can save us millions of dollars.”

Quickly and accurately pinpointing the best areas to explore also significantly reduces the impact on the environment. For Tullow, which takes its environmental and social responsibilities very seriously, this is another key benefit. 

“Less land is disrupted, causing less disruption to local communities and requiring less restoration. Everyone – and the environment – wins,” says Marks.

But when you’re exploring remote sites in countries such as Ghana, Kenya and Uganda, where connectivity is often severely limited, getting terabytes of data back to Dublin as fast as Tullow would like is often easier said than done. 

“We still rely, to some extent, on the old-school method of burning data to disks and transporting it by courier,” says Marks. “But clearly that presents risks in terms of security and the potential for hardware to be damaged in transit.”

So increasingly, where it’s feasible, Tullow deploys mobile satellite data transmission technology at remote sites and streams the data back to Dublin. “That has enabled us to reduce the time it takes to transfer the data – from days to less than a day,” he says.

Once the data reaches Dublin, it is processed on proprietary high-performance computing systems in Tullow’s datacentre, from where the results are transmitted back to the field. “We’ve been able to reduce that to an overnight job in some cases, which is fantastic,” says Marks.

If we can quickly identify the best areas to drill while a data acquisition is still in progress... it can save us millions of dollars

Andrew Marks, Tullow Oil

Not drilling into the cloud

As for procuring and refreshing other IT systems, Marks takes a highly pragmatic view. He holds little truck with the IT industry’s hyping of “the cloud”, for example. 

“While I appreciate true cloud computing is useful in industries with processing peaks and troughs, that doesn’t really apply in our business. I prefer to think in terms of service provision. I simply question on a case-by-case basis whether we should be doing something ourselves or if somebody else should be doing it for us,” he says. 

For example, SAP at Tullow is being delivered by Accenture. “I have no interest in building an SAP application maintenance capability, hardware platform, storage and all the other stuff that goes with it,” he says.

And by keeping a keen eye on what’s core and what’s non-core, carefully assessing business risk and always focusing on how his IT team can deliver maximum value for the business, Marks has kept the Tullow tanker on a steady course that’s allowed this unlikely Irish upstart to continue carving out an impressive slice of an ever more competitive market.

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