Application integration forges offshore link

Having tasted success with a limited enterprise application integration (EAI) project, Tesoro Petroleum was emboldened to tackle linking mission-critical information silos that had never exchanged data before.

A year ago, Mark Evans, CIO at the San Antonio-based oil refiner, faced a data dilemma in Tesoro's marine services division. The process of getting diesel fuel, drill lubricants and supplies out to the company's oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico was fraught with errors. Wrong customer numbers, incorrect product numbers, taxation mistakes and a lack of proper documentation made it nearly impossible to track what the rigs had in stock or to pay Tesoro's suppliers in a timely fashion.

In February last year, Evans started a pilot project to link the billing systems for Tesoro's offshore operations to the corporate enterprise resource planning (ERP) system from SAP AG. Previously skeptical about the ability to forge such links, Evans has since been converted into an integration evangelist.

Evans decided he needed to bolt an HTML face onto an SAP back end so his wildcatters could worry about drilling for oil rather than learning the nuances of how to fill in forms on an SAP system. Evans chose Dallas-based integration vendor Fuego Inc. and set out to reduce what would be 13 to 15 screens of work in an SAP environment to three Web-based screens.

His first order of business was to create a separate SAP instance dedicated to handling orders for the offshore operations to run alongside the marine services division's existing SAP system.

"We wanted to make sure we weren't hammering our production and development environment, so we created a buffer," Evans says.

The new SAP instance required five new Windows NT servers. In addition, Evans' team had to coordinate LAN and directory services to make sure the field offices were sending information to the proper SAP instance before the information was imported into the marine division's main ERP system.

After six weeks, Evans had a parallel SAP environment and an HTML-based system that could execute up to 14 different SAP transactions. Fuego's proprietary component integration language translated the HTML pages into SAP business application program interfaces (BAPI).

Evans found that the error rate for orders taken at Tesoro docking facilities dropped 60 percent. Training for the field employees also took only one day instead of what Evans says could have been a year of trial and error with the ERP system.

All told, the project cost less than US$100,000.

"Initially, when we went into this, you didn't know if you were going to have shelfware, but as it turns out, I particularly liked the ease of use," Evans says. "It really changed our thinking. Suddenly, integration wasn't a black hole that we wanted to stay away from. It stopped being this major technical problem.

"It's been a real cultural change," he adds. "Integration now is really part of every project we intend to do, and it's all based on the fact that it's easier to do."

Adding Layers

Although Tesoro sold its offshore drilling facilities after that project, Evans is now in the process of integrating the company's refinery control systems with the rest of its IT infrastructure. That 90-day EAI project is due to be completed this month.

Evans is creating an XML-based integration layer between Tesoro's refinery control systems and its SAP-based business IT infrastructure. Rather than use point-to-point data translation, Evans says, he wants to transform pipeline, tank-gauging and treatment data in XML documents that could then be distributed to Tesoro's accounting and business divisions.

"There's all sorts of safety and regulatory reasons to improve the flow of this data," Evans says. "Until now, we haven't been able to fully understand what went out and came in each day at the refinery level. Reconciliation has been a monthly process."

Part of the reason there hasn't been that level of monitoring is that refinery systems are largely proprietary, focused on the peculiarities of operating safely in a heavily regulated industry. Those refinery systems have been "firewalled off" from the rest of Tesoro's operations, Evans says.

He had been using a Windows NT server farm to act as a data historian for the refinery operation, but it has been little more than a repository. It hasn't been able to track real-time product movement, process variables or production schedules.

One of the reasons Evans chose an XML data format was that he wants to eventually be able to push data to business partners.

Evans says much of the work has centered on load-balancing his servers both in the refinery and business systems to make sure they don't crash when they begin swapping data. Business process rules for error-handling have also been a focus.

"You've got to make sure the right people get notified," Evans says.

And all this because he learned not to fear EAI.

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