To keep oil pipelines flowing, embedded storage systems have to be tougher

4Advanced solid-state storage is solving a number of challenges for a manufacturer of remote pipeline monitoring equipment.

Human beings not only cannot be on hand on a daily basis to see that oil and gas pipelines in Alaska's remote wilderness run 24/7, they cannot even get to the equipment 10 months out of the year. So a company that provides a variety of sensing equipment and monitoring services to oil and gas pipeline companies throughout Alaska requires the most reliable and rugged systems possible for remote monitoring. Designers of the CompactPCI-based oil and gas pipeline remote monitoring system chose highly reliable solid-state storage for this critical system application.

System designers are turning to solid-state storage in large numbers as drop-in replacements for hard drives or traditional flash cards that were originally designed for consumer applications and cannot take the rigors of true industrial-grade system requirements.

A case study in harsh condition remote monitoring systems

Although the Alaska wilderness pipelines noted earlier can only be accessed for human inspection one or two months of the year, with millions of dollars and precious commodities at stake, the operators and owners must evaluate the pipeline status on an ongoing basis.

Pipelines, due to their continuous nature over remote terrain, are naturally susceptible to disruption by geotechnical events. The oil and gas monitoring and services company needed to remotely manage its pipeline equipment throughout the year, with a field deployment of four years or longer. This required an advanced storage system that enabled the sensing equipment to reliably store monitoring data and not be susceptible to the harsh conditions.

The pipeline remote monitoring solution was an integrated single board CompactPCI computing system, and though the company's monitoring devices were among the best in the industry, their previously chosen storage system had been a painful point of failure in past deployments. Unexpected storage failures caused disruption of data and event log-ging, which meant that critical events were not recorded or transmitted. This threatened to affect the pipeline's operation.

Advanced solid-state storage answers tough demands

Year-round remote monitoring of the pipelines required:

  • Long product life
  • Elimination of field failures from power anomalies
  • User-selectable security features to protect application data and software IP
  • Extended temperature ranges
  • High tolerances for shock and vibration

By switching the storage subsystem to advanced solid-state storage technology specifically designed for embedded system applications instead of one originally designed for consumer applications, the oil and gas monitoring and services company implemented real-time detection of geological motion and the ability to pinpoint the exact location of rock or soil movements along the pipelines the company monitors. The pipelines are continuously interrogated for faults on a user-determined schedule. Even in the dead of night in a fullscale blizzard, highly reliable monitoring takes place. No one needs to travel to the data collection site except for periodic inspections and repair, which can now be scheduled according to the user's time-table and favorable weather conditions. The storage subsystem is no longer the weak link and the source for system failure.

Monitoring storage usage generates additional benefits

The remote monitoring equipment OEM gained additional benefits by select-ing SiliconDrive products (Figure 1) from SiliconSystems. For example, the SiliconDrive solution enables scheduling preemptive maintenance. This approach minimizes and even alleviates unscheduled downtime by monitoring solid-state storage usage. Newly enhanced Self-Monitoring Analysis and Reporting Technology (SMART) creates usage reports (see Figure 2) and works by monitoring the write and erase cycles of each block along with the usage of spare blocks in the storage system to accurately calculate remaining life. Eliminating unscheduled maintenance calls saves time, money, and unnecessary system downtime. The alternative is to chance a system failure.

Figure 1
Figure 2

Up to now, consumer flash cards did not incorporate any type of feedback mechanism and consequently had been allowed to operate until they exceeded endurance specifications and failed. Solid-state storage without a monitoring solution is analogous to driving a car without a fuel gauge - the system operates until it "runs out of gas". Monitoring spares only is like having a light that comes on just before running out of gas. In this scenario, there may or may not be enough time "to get to a gas station" before the system fails. Advanced solid-state storage that integrates monitoring technology provides the needed fuel gauge (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Even newer advanced solid-state storage products, such as the SiliconDrive Blade in its postage-stamp sized form factor, are providing a proven scalable platform for the next round of design innovation, just like CompactFlash did in its time.

At one time OEMs eyeing smaller embedded form factors and needing high performance and high reliability really had no cost-effective choice. CompactFlash cards were available and a proven form factor, but risky in harsh environments or in heavy duty-cycle applications where the card could literally wear out. The risk was even greater with SD or MMC cards, which were specifically designed for consumer applications and never intended for industrial use.

Due to growing consumer and industrial customer demand for solid-state storage and constant innovation, advanced solid-state storage technology is available today in multiple small and ultra-small form factors with zero loss in performance, reliabili- ty, endurance, product life, and more.

The innovation pendulum is swinging back from the industrial market to consumer applications once again in the form of embedded security. Advanced solid-state storage has long included security features that protect application data and software IP. In today's world of mobile miniature devices, address books and confidential personal data like credit card information or medical history are at risk. Hard drives have done little besides basic encryption to address these issues.

The pioneers of advanced solid-state storage continue to lead the way for new consumer innovations. As these benefits find their way into consumer markets, driving new uses and expectations, no doubt the innovation pendulum will once again reverse directions.

Gary Drossel is a storage and embedded systems industry expert with nearly 20 years of experience. He joined SiliconSystems in 2004 as Director of Product Marketing and was named Vice President of Product Planning in September 2006.