These modules are pre-engineered, pre-assembled, integrated and pre-tested in a factory environment, then transported to the remote location as a single structure.
by Davide Ortisi
November 2, 2015

In the oil and gas industry, exploration and extraction sites are most commonly found in remote locations with rugged environmental conditions, requiring sites to operate in some of the most inhospitable areas on the planet: intemperate deserts, volatile war zones and regions where dramatic weather and seismic events are regular occurrences. These sites present unique challenges, such as poor infrastructure and small populations of professional expertise.

But as new technologies and applications drive efficiency in exploration and increase requirements for information processing capability, many oil and gas production entities are finding a specific and urgent need to modernize their IT infrastructure to maximize performance, optimize operational levels and deliver timely data at upstream processing locations. Prefabricated data centers offer a unique solution set to meet these growing needs.

Many pressures in the industry, as well as the driving forces of technology, are forcing oil and gas producers to transform their business models. Despite the fact that there are diverse application opportunities for new data centers in the oil and gas industry, capital investments to upgrade these facilities have been primarily targeted at operational technologies such as automation and digitization.

Meanwhile, the information processing capabilities needed to drive advancement are often relegated to far-flung data centers in a company's urban headquarters. This tactic has required large and expensive data connections via satellite to deliver intelligence to the oilfield, opening doors for delays or downtime.

In response, managers of these sites are now looking to build data centers on-site to alleviate latency issues and drive down connectivity costs. But construction at these sites often remains a major challenge because of the local availability of building materials and labor expertise. Complex communication among involved parties, cost overruns, inspections and site-specific challenges are also magnified by the remote locations of oil and gas sites.

Prefabricated Advantages

Prefabricated data center modules solve many of the potential pitfalls for these implementations and provide particular benefit for the oil and gas industry. These modules are pre-engineered, pre-assembled, integrated and pre-tested in a factory environment, then transported to the remote location as a single structure. The containerized systems—modules in corrugated steel containers that meet International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards for size and dimensions often used in oil and gas deployments—are highly portable and ideal for applications that require easy transportation. This type of manufacturing and delivery also virtually eliminates the compatibility issues presented by using components supplied and shipped from multiple vendors and manufacturers. Additionally, the risks associated with on-site assembly, installation and integration—such as human error—are alleviated, resulting in a faster and more reliable deployment. When compared with traditional stick-built facilities, the use of standardized, pre-assembled and integrated data center facility power and cooling modules can be 60 percent faster to deploy.

Prefabricated data centers are built using individual modules that provide power, cooling or IT space or as all-in-one blocks that can be added and relocated over time as business demands evolve. Just like a Lego building, each new block can fit snugly within the existing infrastructure. This flexibility can ease the pains associated with traditional greenfield deployments and brownfield expansions, especially as oil and gas businesses grow or consolidate based on the availability of natural resources.

The use of prefabricated modules can also simplify management and maintenance once the building process is complete. Prefabricated data center modules are manufactured off-site in a factory controlled environment. This approach greatly minimizes uncertainty, resulting in more predictable performance of the data center infrastructure, minimized risk and simplified maintenance operations. This is a critical benefit for oil and gas businesses where personnel often work on rotation cycles and minutes of downtime can result in the loss of millions of dollars.

Prefabricated architecture can also provide protection from the elements that remotely located oil and gas data centers need to maintain uptime and continuity.

Oil and gas operations are often managed out of locations that present severe environmental conditions such as extreme hot or cold climates, offshore platforms, or exploration and production sites exposed to sand, dust or high concentrations of air pollutants. Prefabricated data centers make special allowances for these difficult conditions.

Environments with Sand & Dust

Power and IT prefabricated modules can be fitted with data center vestibules to protect critical data. These vestibules often function to reduce cross-contamination between external air and the data center. They feature an air lock entry that is fitted with inner and outer doors. The doors open in an alternating pattern so that only one set is open at any given time to prevent air infiltration into the IT space.

The rest of the external structure not protected by a vestibule is typically reinforced with 60 to 120 millimeter (mm) insulated panels. The size of the panels depends on the geographical location and the application. These panels insulate the IT environment against smoke gases and also prevent heat spread. Additionally, air renovation and purification systems, customized with sand traps, can guarantee normal working conditions for operators. Similar sand trap customization should also be performed on condenser's coils to avoid sand backlog.

Marine & Offshore

Marine environments present high concentrations of salt and chlorine, which represent a threat to the external structure of prefabricated data center modules in the form of erosion and degradation of materials. Managers can request high-performance coatings for highly corrosive environments up to ISO 12944 C4 and C5 classification. They should also consider periodical on-site maintenance services to detect and remediate issues related to corrosion.

External condensers may also need to be treated with epoxy resins to prevent oxidation and/or corrosion of the internal coil. In the case of chilled water-based systems, metal components should be avoided and replaced with plastic materials wherever possible (i.e. piping). More efficient filters are also recommended for air filtration purposes.

Hot & Humid Climates

To protect the data center environment from water intrusion, the sealing mechanisms must be reinforced with chemical sealants. International Protection Marking (IP) X6 waterproof doors should also be considered. Such doors are tested to withstand leakage by being exposed to water delivered through a 12.5 mm nozzle at a rate of 100 liters per minute at a pressure of 100 kilonewtons per square meter (kN/m2) for three minutes from a distance of 3 meters.

Hot & Dry Climates

In case of extreme hot and dry climates (45 C/113 F and up), some cooling considerations may apply. In general, the hotter the temperature, the weaker cooling systems perform. Condensers should be oversized and upgraded. R134a refrigerant gases are used instead of R410A and R407C, which are the industry standards for more temperate data center environments.

Cold Climates

In case of cold climates (-20 C/-4 F and below) some additional cooling considerations are applicable.

  • Chilled water cooling: For condensation purposes, and in order to operate with low external temperatures, units must be fitted with crankcase heaters for the compressors and an anti-condensation heater for the electrical components and control boards. Units should also be fitted with antifreeze heaters on evaporators, pumps and water tanks.
  • Direct expansion cooling: In temperatures of -40 C/F and below, condensers need to be fitted with refrigeration circuits and components optimized for extremely cold temperatures. Condensers equipped for these climates can feature high-resilience steel liquid receivers and flooding valves to control condensing temperature. Both can be designed to fit within the overall dimensions of the equipment.