Microsoft’s New Houston Center Caters to Energy

May 12, 2016
In a city that serves as one of the world’s biggest oil and gas hubs, the latest Microsoft Technology Center shows off what cloud technologies and connected devices can do for the industry.

There are more than 40 Microsoft Technology Centers (MTCs) around the world, half of which are in North America alone, including one in my home base of Chicago. And yet when I heard they’d opened a new MTC in Houston, I made sure I got a chance to tour it the next time I was in town. It was finally an opportunity to see how Microsoft’s technologies would be used in an environment that, being in Houston, would surely revolve around the oil and gas industry.

Though Microsoft has been present in the industrial world for decades, the software giant has really been playing up its role in the manufacturing sector for the past year or so, emphasizing what its Azure cloud environment and other technologies can achieve in an era of connected devices.

Last summer, I visited Microsoft’s Retail Experience Center in Redmond, Wash. Though it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine how the solutions it shows off around banks and coffee shops could apply to plant and field automation as well, it’s helpful to see scenarios played out that are more specific to the energy sector.

That’s exactly what goes on at the Houston MTC, which operates as an Oil & Gas Center of Excellence. In one room, the Interactive Center serves as a hands-on showcase for Microsoft technologies on a variety of form factors—from mobile phones and ruggedized tablets to large wall-mounted screens and Microsoft’s Surface Hub. This MTC features solutions well suited to the energy industry, such as Azure Machine Learning for predictive analytics, for field maintenance and repairs, and production optimization; Skype and Office 365 capabilities used for collaboration between field engineers and remote experts; and Microsoft Dynamics, which can track service requests and send feedback to predictive analytics models.

A Connected Production solution from Rockwell Automation demonstrates intelligent views from sensor data collected in the field. The data, stored in Microsoft Azure, are processed and shared from the cloud.

The Interactive Center in Houston also demonstrates a connected mine solution in partnership with Accenture. Certainly, the underlying principles still relate to the energy industry as well, showing a more predictive and proactive form of operations, noted Muge Wood, director of the MTC in Houston.

Through customer/partner Baker Hughes, a demonstration of FieldPulse shows the ability to track key data indicators from wells in real time. The data is collected and stored in the Microsoft Azure cloud environment.

In fact, another thing that sets the Houston center apart from its cousins is that it is the first cloud-based MTC. Cloud computing makes it easier for customers to start small and scale up when they’re ready, with very little investment, Wood noted. “Because it’s a cloud-based solution, the starting base is pretty low,” she said. “You can start with just a few wells.”

This can be good for service providers, smaller integrated oil and gas companies, and even larger companies that are interested in testing out the technology first on a smaller scale. “It’s easily scalable, so they can gain confidence first and then scale out,” Wood said.

Customers have come a long way in just a short span of two to three years with regard to trusting cloud computing for industrial applications, Wood noted. Often, there’s now a mandate from the head office to implement the cloud in production, she said, “and they’re coming to us and saying, ‘Can you help us?’” The conversation has become more about how to do than why.

Next door in the Envisioning Center, many of these technologies are put into action in a theater, role-play setting. Most of the MTCs have Envisioning Centers to show the various locations and personas that might be involved in day-to-day decision-making. In this case, of course, the scenarios focus on oil and gas. In addition to a bistro setting for the vacationing worker, there’s an international office with a view of Dubai in the background, a home office with a view of Texas Hill Country complete with bluebonnets, and a field location with oil wells pictured.

This is a place where Microsoft’s customers can get a better feel of what it’s really like to leverage the technology in their own businesses, noted Ravi Tella, an MTC Houston cloud architect. “We reinvent how business processes are conducted with our solutions,” he said.

To demonstrate, Tella acted out a scenario along with fellow cloud architect Sean Galliher dealing with warnings from one of their well sites. Beginning with an email notification providing warning about Well 194, they showed integration with Microsoft applications such as OneDrive for Business and OneNote. “Julian,” working from home because his wife recently had a baby, was able to use his browser to access all his work from the cloud. And they could send “Carlos,” a relatively unskilled field worker, out to the well with a Windows 10 phone to collaborate with Julian, a senior field engineer with previous knowledge on this well.

Wearing a helmet outfitted with an explosion-proof camera—technology from partner company Bartec—Carlos is able to show Julian what he is seeing on the well equipment, and together they are able to diagnose the problem.

With Wood’s help playing a needed expert on vacation in Europe, the team also demonstrated a new SharePoint mobile app, referred to as Intranet in Your Pocket. Galliher mentioned that it was launched the day of my visit, actually, providing access to content, sites, portals and people from your company intranet through your mobile phone.

The Houston MTC has had close to 140 customers engagements since it opened late last year, Wood said, the majority of which come from the energy industry. About 100 of those engagements were unique visitors, but there have been several repeat visits as some customers are first intrigued by what’s possible and then come back to work through how to build their application, Wood said. “One of our largest oil and gas customers came nine times already,” she said, noting that in some cases different teams visited to learn more.

“Everybody wants to improve their insights,” Wood added. “They want to understand how to work with different groups both within and outside of their organizations.”

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