Black Gold


Companies moving to NEXTSTEP have a lot of ground to cover, but maybe none more than PanCanadian Petroleum, the second-largest oil and gas producer north of the U.S. border. According to Stephen Wyatt, manager of information systems, "we're a manufacturing company with a production floor of 500,000 square miles." That's an area larger than Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado combined.

PanCanadian has close to 1400 employees and 400 consultants spread among its Calgary, Alberta, headquarters and seven regional offices in Alberta and Saskatchewan. With almost 400 of those workers responsible for covering huge territories, "their truck is really their office," says Roger Coates, coordinator of technology management. The firm needed to find ways to improve information flow, but simple networking wasn't the answer.

Coates, Wyatt, and the rest of the IS staff met last year and put together a SITE (Strategic Information Technology Expectations) study. The report identified 30 software applications that are important to PanCanadian's continued technological growth, but it also emphasized NEXTSTEP's ability to change the way people work. "We needed to integrate information from various sources, so our focus has been aimed at assisting professionals to be more productive, rather than automating clerical work," Coates says.

With an estimated five-year development cycle for the 30 apps, Coates explains, the IS staff was looking for a development environment that "had legs and would be current when we finished." They settled on NEXTSTEP because Objective-C has "the horsepower to handle difficult problems" and purchased 65 black boxes. PanCanadian currently has almost 100 black and white NEXTSTEP machines (having settled on the Compaq Deskpro 66M Intel box after evaluating several offerings) and plans to deploy 500 seats by the end of this year.

With support from company executives, especially new CEO David O'Brien, the IS team has deployed or is finishing up its first six applications: a management system for gas marketers; software to catalog and study potential drilling areas; a gas-allocation application; a package to analyze fluid corrosiveness; a second gas-marketing app; and a system for cataloging "best practices" that records metrics about successful methods used in various projects.

This last package is significant for improving the information flow between field workers and headquarters. "Field people have traditionally been guys in overalls who carry wrenches to open and close taps and repair equipment. We want them to have an understanding of the business implications of what they do. They drive the cost of a barrel out of the ground," says Wyatt.

By coordinating production and business information, field supervisors can more effectively schedule workers, operate or shut down drills, and perform plant maintenance. Currently, field workers send and receive information over T1 lines from district offices to headquarters, which has been wired with a fiber-optic backbone. PanCanadian is evaluating NEXTSTEP laptops for future deployment.

The success and executive support of the new development efforts have solidified the company programmers' break from writing code for PanCanadian's old IBM 3090 mainframe, which relied on IDMS and CISC-Cobol. "When you have to face objects, you have to think differently, and you wind up with an event-driven client-server environment," Coates says.

A significant part of that environment has been the firm's Sun 80 SPARCstations. "Sun just about owns the technical-application market in this industry," Coates says. The November announcement between Sun and NeXT will allow PanCanadian to integrate the technical side of its business into the SITE development plans.

"We use a lot of third-party apps for seismic interpretation and reservoir simulation. Those kinds of apps are very compute-intensive, and the algorithms are very specialized, so we have to buy a lot of these kinds of applications. We'll be encouraging vendors to port their apps to a Sun-based OpenStep environment," Coates says.

Even though the announcement was unexpected, the IS staff had been planning for it, by focusing their development efforts over the last year in building an "object infrastructure," Coates explains. If the SITE plan had merely relied on mission-critical custom-application development, integrating the Solaris-based technical side of the business, even with an OpenStep backbone, would have been more difficult.

The idea was to take advantage of what lies behind NEXTSTEP, rather than just the development environment. "Our approach to implementation is to drive for reuse by building object libraries. In parallel with the six applications, we're building libraries of reusable parts of the apps," Coates says. This will bring PanCanadian's geologists and other scientists into the same operational systems with accountants, managers, and field workers.

"Communication is a serious issue," Coates explains. When organizations deploy NEXTSTEP, the success or failure hinges on realizing that they are deploying more than just software or hardwareĞ they are implementing a new technology, with new ideas that can cover a lot of ground. "The applications people needed to work better made them think differently," Coates says. "And it turned out that everybody wants to use the new tools."

by Eliot Bergson