1 February 2006
.NET in Real Time
In a true collaborative environment, application suite simplifies information sharing
By Bob Felton
Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer likes to talk about the day he told his parents he was dropping out of school to go to work for a software company. His father asked him what software was, while his mother asked: "Why would a person ever need a computer?"
Then, microcomputers were the too-expensive toys of visionary eccentrics. Today, they are the indispensable appliance of the hyper-competitive business world they helped create.
With near-instantaneous global communications via the Internet a reality, and a new suite of road-tested software tools in programmers' hands, the competition is about to get tougher with up-to-the-minute global monitoring and real-time global collaboration.
Microsoft .NET has gone from an abstract idea hitting the manufacturing industry around the turn of the century to a suite of applications built into the Windows operating system to simplify information sharing between computers and across operating platforms. .NET tools exchange data using the XML and SOAP data formats as intermediaries, grabbing data from virtually any database on any platform and transporting it to another database on a different platform or publishing it to HTML.
Global data collection, reporting
Created in 2001 by the merger of Cayman Islands-based Global Marine and Houston-based Santa Fe, international oil- and gas-well drilling contractor GlobalSantaFe Corp. operates 61 drill rigs scattered all over the world, each with unique capabilities, cultures, and onboard computer systems—a nightmare for the combined company's IT staff charged with gathering, parsing, and reporting operational data to the company's management. Safety data are of special concern to a firm obliged to work under a wide range of differing legal systems and medical availability, in an industry among the most dangerous in the world.
GlobalSantaFe solved the communications problems by developing a purpose-built, Microsoft .NET-based application called Safety Dashboard, sharply improving reporting and driving down accidents and related costs.
Before implementing Safety Dashboard, the company relied on e-mail for data reporting by its far-flung rigs, where e-mail was available that is. "Effective communications within our worldwide operations environment has always been challenging. Until recently, for example, some parts of West Africa were completely inaccessible and sometimes relied purely on conventional mailbags to communicate," said Adrian Gray, GlobalSantaFe's director of health, safety, and environmental affairs.
There was no way to audit the reporting, no way to monitor changes, and the data provided in e-mail attachments were susceptible to electronic theft. As data trickled in, staff manually analyzed it, and then manually prepared and distributed reports. The process was slow, chronically out-of-sync due to incomplete reporting, paperwork intensive, and worse, inhibited quick identification of nascent mechanical and operational problems.
"We wanted to have a single-point overview of what was happening in our company all around the world," Gray said. "And, just like the dashboard on a car, we wanted an instrument that would provide us with clear and early warning signals of areas that required immediate attention."
Working with software developer Software Architects, GlobalSantaFe developed a multilayered reporting system.
1. Field data accumulated in a Microsoft SQL Server-based database housed in a dedicated server.
2. A second layer, also housed in a dedicated server, contains the communication protocols that enable data transfer between the various computer systems and business applications.
3. The presentation layer, where data are analyzed and published to HTML, XLS, or PDF files.
Last, the company outfitted the drill rigs with satellite communications technology. Once the system was implemented, users throughout the world found themselves facing the same Web-based data entry forms, complete with online help and guidance. In Houston, the data arrives in very near real time (delayed only by uplink/downlink lags), is analyzed, and almost instantly available for reporting. Manual analysis is eliminated, and potential problems are identified rapidly. Further, the package includes a set of standardized reports, and supports user-configurable reports for zooming in on matters of special interest.
Quick, company-wide acceptance
GlobalSantaFe reports the new software was readily accepted throughout the company, from the IT department to the North Sea. "Often, when you launch a new system, people have a natural tendency to resent and oppose the change," said Gray. "Employees throughout our organization have quickly accepted and taken ownership of the entire Safe Dashboard process."
"GlobalSantaFe has a lot of demanding users who are not shy," said Mike Garvin, a GlobalSantaFe vice president. "They have fully embraced Safety Dashboard as a tool that has eliminated paperwork, streamlined operations, added transparency to our reporting, and improved processes throughout the organization."
Another benefit has been the assurance that when a problem is identified and a corrective action is assigned to a person, there's a fail-safe mechanism to ensure the problem is corrected even if the individual responsible for the fix left the company or was transferred. "Now, all tasks are recorded and assigned by organization role with a target completion date," said Gray. "If, for whatever reason, the corrective action does not take place by the due date, Safety Dashboard is programmed to send out an alert to all involved. This system does not allow anybody to forget anything."
Payoffs in efficiency, accuracy
Prior to implementation, GlobalSantaFe maintained a staff of 10 people devoted exclusively to receiving incoming data, analyzing it, and reporting it, and they couldn't keep up. Today, a single employee administers the company's safety and environmental data. "[It] frees our staff members from administrative burdens and enables them to focus on the more important concerns of improving safety and environmental management at our rig sites," Gray said.
Safety Dashboard also can recognize patterns of injuries and distribute immediate alerts, "rather than our having to comb through piles of paper to manually identify such trends," Garvin said. "[This gives] us the assurance that someone won't be hurt because of something that wasn't tracked or sent out in a timely manner."
In 2004, the company posted its lowest-ever lost time incident rate. While GlobalSantaFe declined to provide actual accident figures, or the costs associated with the project, the company's 2003 Annual Report, however, said: "In 2003, we recorded the lowest accident frequency rate in our history. At 0.24 Lost Time Incidents per 200,000 hours worked, we are an industry leader in safety performance." When it was time to prepare the 2004 Annual Report, the company had driven the Lost Time Incidents figure even lower. "We continued to make GlobalSantaFe a safer place to work, reducing lost time, injuries offshore by 25% and achieving our best safety record ever." (The International Association of Drilling Contractors reports, industry wide, the Lost Time Incidents rate was 0.63 in 2003 and 2004.)
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents was impressed, too, giving a Gold Award to GlobalSantaFe's GSF Arctic III drill rig in 2005, conferred for:
- Excellent occupational health and safety management
- A rigorous approach to occupational health
- High levels of compliance with control for principal risks
- Below average and reducing rates of error
Ensuring a safe work environment is just one application of .NET. Speed to market in the global manufacturing arena is another.
Faced with the rising cost of travel associated with global manufacturing and unhappy about expensive miscommunications accompanying telephone and facsimile exchanges, Intermec Technologies Corp. turned to .NET-based global collaboration and cut time to market by 5%, while recouping its investment in only three months. Among its various business units, Intermec manufactures wired and wireless automated data collection devices, radio frequency identification devices, and mobile computing systems.
Intermec maintains design teams in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Everett, Wash., and consults with suppliers and manufacturers globally while a product is under development—a dispersion of talent that encumbers and slows the iterations inherent in design work. "We have to not only come to market quickly; as product development has evolved to include multi-site locations and worldwide partners, we've needed more key collaborative functionalities than were available to us," said Ryan White, Intermec's chief mechanical engineer.
Intermec looked into online collaboration software and selected a .NET-based application for the Windows 2000 and XP operating systems from software developer CoCreate. Because CoCreate is installed on a dedicated server, adding collaborators is straightforward—just submit their e-mail addresses to the system. The new users soon receive a "click-here" e-mail that leads them through downloading and installing a 15- to 20-Mb software package. Once installed, the new user is ready to go.
It also sets up fast. Intermec's initial installation of 20 users wrapped up in a couple of hours.
The software package costs $995 per licensee or user. Small companies that don't have the IT staff to oversee the system can arrange for CoCreate to host the application and meetings at a cost of $120 per month per user.
Once in place, the package maintains a log of participants and supports instant messaging and application sharing. Engineers throughout the world are, literally, on the same page as design decisions affecting their different areas of expertise are discussed. Meetings can be scheduled using Outlook, tasks established during the meeting may be scheduled into Outlook, and an Adobe .PDF-format record of the meeting is created and archived for later review.
White estimates online collaboration has cut time-to-market by 5%, or two weeks, citing two benefits: There is less travel, sometimes saving several days and avoiding post-travel exhaustion, and late-design retooling is required less frequently.
With savings in the design and production phases, Intermec estimates its first-year ROI is 435%, a recovery of their investment in only three months.
Gartner analyst Tom Eid predicts online collaboration will be a $1.1 billion business by 2008, an increase of almost 100% from revenues of $588 million in 2004. Gartner analysts said other forms of collaboration, such as instant messaging and video conferencing, will also see increasing demand.
About the Author
Bob Felton, PE (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a freelance writer based in Wake Forest, N.C.
What Is Microsoft .NET Anyway?
Caught flat-footed by the burgeoning growth of the Internet in the mid 1990s, Microsoft's Bill Gates responded with a crash program to implement the Net's communications protocols in the Windows operating system and develop the now-ubiquitous Internet Explorer browser, envisioning a day when the millions of computers connected to the Internet would simply be extensions of the computer on the user's desktop.
Microsoft .NET is the next generation of that vision, a suite of applications built-into the Windows operating system that simplifies information sharing between computers and across operating system platforms.
Though the underlying technologies are vastly different, .NET is conceptually the old, and elegant, UNIX idea of "tools" updated for the Internet era, a suite of relatively small applications that do one humdrum task very well. The familiar UNIX "cat" command, for instance, does nothing but publish the content of a specified file to a specified output. When deployed with redirection and piping in scripts with other, similarly compact tools, however, "cat" simplifies tasks ranging from a quick visual scan of a file to printing a formatted copy of a novel.
Dubbed "services," .NET tools exchange data using the XML and SOAP data formats as intermediaries, grabbing data from virtually any database on any platform and transporting it to another database on a different platform or publishing it to HTML.
.NET isn't just for publishing data to the outside world, however; it has internal uses, as well.
Companies have found Internet commerce difficult thanks to the lack of an easy way to communicate information between diverse, internal applications, maintaining Web sites that are no more than analogs to a movie-set front with nothing behind the facade. A typical case: A consumer goes to the Super Widgets Web site and orders something. Is accounting notified, or inventory? Not until somebody gets around to printing multiple copies of the order and walking them around the office to everybody who needs to know, each of whom then enters the data into their local systems. What is the result? Typos, billing delays, inventory snafus, and, inevitably, occasional embarrassment and, worse, peevish customers.
.NET provides tools for avoiding that by transferring data between applications and platforms automatically.
Wireless Access Shortens Downtimes
With 24/7 responsibility for maintaining Oracle databases detailing the real-time status of power outages across three states, Cinergy's DBA Craig Welch never left home without his laptop computer. The company simply couldn't afford to permit repair crews to stand idle and unable to respond—in the dark, as it were—in an industry where the cost of a power outage might cost as much as $10,000 per minute.
But finding an available phone jack and logging in to the system, in addition to making a hasty departure from a movie theater or restaurant, could take up to 30 minutes or more.
Enter a set of Microsoft .NET-based applications, which run on Palm- or Windows-CE handhelds from Expand Beyond, PocketAdmin, and PocketDBA. With a single application placed on the server, and complementary applications on a handheld, Welch was able to immediately log in to the company computer system from practically anywhere and get to work fixing the problem, often restoring the database to service in less time than he formerly would have needed just to log in and begin assessing what had gone wrong.
The initial demonstration cost to Cinergy? About $15,000. The company was so pleased with the result that wireless access to the servers via handhelds was eventually expanded to roughly 125 employees. The initial demonstration "saved at least one salary," according to a participant in the project.
Further, though Cinergy has since been acquired by Duke Power, the company plans to expand its use of handheld access by its employees.
Microsoft .Net homepage
Software for Automation: Architecture, Integration, and Security by Jonas Berge
".NET in the real world; platform allows for reusing legacy program code" by Mikael Sundfors
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