Alberta oil and gas services outfit drills deep with mobile VPN

Calgary-based Trican Well Service Ltd. offers specialized services for oil and gas companies throughout the life of a project, from drilling through decommissioning — cement casing, clean-outs, fracturing, abandonments and more. By the nature of the business, most of Trican’s staff are in the field most or all of the time, with operations across Alberta, Saskatchewan and B.C., four bases in Russia and Kazakhstan, and a fracturing business in Texas.

“We were very much paper-based until a few years ago,” says Sheri Roth, Trican’s IT manager. A homegrown application processed field tickets for invoicing, but the tickets themselves were paper, filled out in the field. From job completion to invoice could take as long as 60 days.

It was partly to shorten that window that Trican outfitted 300 field supervisors’ pickups with notebook computers and ruggedized EVDO modems. Within minutes of a job’s completion, a SQL backend application is generating invoices from the electronic field tickets. On Trican’s intranet, customers can view job status almost in real time.

Holding that process together is a mobile VPN, a specialized offering in a growing market. The technology is becoming more stable, says Mark Tauschek, senior research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group. “There’s a very specific application for a mobile VPN,” he says. “SSL (secure socket layer) VPNs are great for people who are moving around, but not for people who are roaming.”

It’s application persistence that makes a mobile VPN viable. Because devices have virtual IP addresses, they can cross networks seamlessly. Using user datagram protocol (UDP) allows the VPN to maintain a connection even when the client has dropped out, whereas a transmission control protocol (TCP) connection would continue retransmitting until it fails, says Tauschek. That manifests itself in crashed applications, especially if they’re older or developed inhouse, and restarts, he says.

The UDP connection can stay active indefinitely, allowing the user to resume the job when a connection is restored. Since Trican’s 1,700-strong field staff in Canada spends a lot of time in remote areas with spotty wireless coverage, that’s a critical consideration. “It insulates the user and the user’s applications from connectivity loss and network changes,” says Lee Johnson, senior product marketing manager with NetMotion Wireless Inc., developer of Trican’s Mobility XE wireless VPN.

Seattle-based NetMotion was spun off from WRQ (now Attachmate) in 2001. The company has 85 employees and more than 1,000 deployments worldwide.

Aside from application persistence, the two key features of a mobile VPN are security (both of data in transit and of the physical device) and data compression, says Tauschek, though Trican’s Roth calls the latter “a bonus” rather than a critical feature.

“We needed a way to manage all these 1X components and make sure transmission was secure,” Roth says. Trican’s IT department can also shadow the laptops to troubleshoot for field users, manage patches and software updates and control usage policies. For example, devices can be restricted to specific job-related apps when using expensive cellular connections, while e-mail and Web browsing can become available in a WiFi environment.

Most of the savings are in soft costs, says Roth: quicker invoice turnaround, simplified management and support, less downtime because of viruses or iffy downloads.

Data compression and application acceleration come into play for low-bandwidth connections like 1X or GPRS, says Tauschek, providing “at least the impression the performance has improved.”

NetMotion is one of the niche players in the mobile VPN market, says Tauschek. Its solution is Windows-only. Other mobile VPN companies include Bluefire Security Technologies from Baltimore (which supports Windows and Palm platform, but not Symbian) and BirdStep Technologies ASA (which makes laptop and smartphone products). Nokia and Cisco also make mobile VPN products.

“The strongest players are relatively niche-y,” Tauschek said.

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Dave Webb
Dave Webb
Dave Webb is a freelance editor and writer. A veteran journalist of more than 20 years' experience (15 of them in technology), he has held senior editorial positions with a number of technology publications. He was honoured with an Andersen Consulting Award for Excellence in Business Journalism in 2000, and several Canadian Online Publishing Awards as part of the ComputerWorld Canada team.

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