Nov 12 2008

Drilling for Dollars

In the booming natural gas and oil drilling business, Pumpco Energy Services relies on blade PCs to manage and monitor its pumping equipment.

Photo: Dan Bryant
Pumpco’s Brian Bock relies on blade PCs to monitor the company’s natural gas drilling operations.

“Drill, baby, drill” was a popular phrase in this year’s presidential race, but for North Texas residents, drilling for natural gas reaps billions of dollars annually — and Pumpco Energy Services is helping fuel the action.

The Barnett Shale is a huge natural gas reserve that spans 21 counties in North Texas, including the city of Fort Worth. Energy companies salivated over the untapped potential of the 5,000-square-mile shale, but for several decades, the natural gas — embedded in rock thousands of feet below — was beyond their grasp. Then, in the early 2000s, new advances in drilling technology let energy companies crack the rock and extract large amounts of gas, resulting in a drilling boom that turned the region, including the urban areas, into the country’s largest onshore natural gas field.

Pumpco Energy Services, in Gainesville, Texas, has seen its fortunes grow, thanks to the Barnett Shale’s rise and the country’s seemingly insatiable thirst for energy. Pumpco, a pressure pumping services division of Complete Production Services, is hired by independent and major energy companies to use pumping techniques to increase production in their gas and oil wells. The division, whose workforce has increased from 180 to 450 employees this year, services primarily natural gas wells in the Barnett Shale but is expanding to other regions, including the oil-rich Bakken Shale in North Dakota. One technique Pumpco uses is “hydraulic fracturing,” a process that pumps water and sand down wells at high pressure to crack rock and free up the gas and oil.

“About five years ago, our industry came up with a new technology to fracture stimulate the shale so it can produce more gas and oil, and that’s significant,” says Pumpco president Mark Songer. “Obviously, we have a lot of demand for gas and oil in the United States, so finding these kinds of plays in domestic operations is critical.”

Computers play an important role in Pumpco’s rapid-fire success. In fact, as part of Pumpco’s growth, the company purchased four new “data vans,” which are actually 18-wheel trucks that serve as operation centers close to the stimulation treatment. The company, which standardized on desktop computers in its existing trucks, is equipping the new trucks with blade PCs to manage and monitor its pumping equipment.

“We’re monitoring the pressures on these wells, and it helps us determine if we’re doing the job as designed,” Songer says. “With the computers, we have the ability to change the pressures and rates during the treatment.”

Security and Uptime

Brian Bock, Pumpco’s field IT technician, considered purchasing regular PCs for the new trucks, but decided to buy blade PCs from ClearCube because they offer better security, increased uptime and are easier to configure and manage.

Blade PCs are a mix of traditional desktop PCs and thin-client computing, in which servers deliver the computing power and storage for applications and data. The blade PCs themselves are thin computers that feature the standard PC parts, such as a processor, memory, a hard drive and a graphics card. Like blade servers, blade PCs slip into a chassis that shares the same resources, including power supplies, cooling fans and network connections. Finally, “user ports” (small, thin-client devices that are placed on users’ desks) connect to a monitor, keyboard and mouse, and provide access to the blade PC.

As a result, blade PCs give users the full power of regular PCs, but they are located in the data center, giving the IT department the security and centralized management of thin-client computing. In the case of Pumpco, the blade PCs are housed in a chassis in the new trucks.

In each truck, Bock has deployed five blade PCs, each running custom software that provides charts and data on the pumping equipment operating at the well. He keeps one spare blade PC on hand with the necessary applications already loaded, so if one blade crashes, employees can easily swap it out and get computer operations up and running in a matter of minutes.

“With the older desktop systems in the older trucks, if a desktop goes down, it takes half a day to get the old one out and the next one in,” Bock explains. “With the blades, I don’t have to be onsite. A user can swap the blade without having to worry about cabling and the big mess that would ensue. It’s a quick swap and we’re good to go.”

Improved security is also a huge benefit, Bock says. The company had problems with the theft of desktop PCs in its existing trucks. But the blades are bolted into the chassis, and the chassis is bolted to the truck, making them difficult to steal. “If people do manage to steal a blade PC, it’s useless without the chassis,” Bock explains.

The blade PCs are also more secure because they don’t have CD-ROM drives and because Bock locks down the ports to prevent web surfing. That way, people can’t load or download applications that could potentially put the computers at risk, he adds. Some employees are equipped with notebook computers with wireless Internet cards, so they can write reports and check and send work e-mail.

Optimizing the Wells

Pumpco has eight stimulation fleets in the Barnett Shale and two in North Dakota’s Bakken. The fleets, which employ about 30 workers each, spend between a day to three days at each client’s well, where they provide cementing and stimulation services, Songer says. To stimulate wells, Pumpco uses trucks equipped with high-pressure pumps and blenders that mix water and sand. The fluids are pumped down the well at high pressure, creating fractures in the rock. That lets the natural gas escape, to be siphoned up the well.

“We enhance or improve the production of wells,” Songer explains. “It’s much like a kitchen sink that is plugged. We take away the clog and clean it out, so it can flow more freely.”

All the trucks and pumping equipment are connected with a serial daisy-chain network, Bock says. Small electronic sensors on the equipment send information on all facets of the pumping operation, such as valve pressure, to the blade PCs in real time.

The five blades provide Pumpco employees with the data and charts they need to ensure that the job is being performed efficiently and safely. If need be, they can tweak the settings.

“We can control everything outside from the inside,” Bock says.

Pumpco also makes the data available to its customers in real time. Bock is installing satellite uplinks on each new truck, so the blade PCs can automatically send reports through an encrypted tunnel to a Pumpco server housed in a colocation site. Clients can log into a website remotely to view the reports and monitor the job Pumpco is doing, he says.

In the future, Bock plans to use ClearCube’s Sentral management software, which lets him remotely manage and troubleshoot the blades. In the meantime, he says he’s impressed with the technology. While blade PCs are more expensive, they are worth the investment because of the improved security, he says, adding, “We don’t have to worry about downtime.”

As for Pumpco’s future, competition is stiff, but Songer expects the division to continue to see strong growth. Songer says the big play in Texas is the Barnett Shale, but there are shale formations elsewhere in the country where drilling is just beginning, such as the East Coast’s Marcellus Shale.

“We’re a fast-growing company, and I expect we will continue to increase our revenue by going out and taking advantage of the different shale plays that fit into our expertise,” he says.