Using Cloud-Based SCADA to Provide Advanced Cost-Effective Solutions to Small and Midsize Users

Blackrock Automation Awarded Top VTScada System Integrator Worldwide

Founded in 2010, Blackrock Automation is a rapidly growing company that provides advanced development, integration, and support for oil and gas customers in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, North Dakota, and Texas. On March 6th, 2020, Trihedral was proud to award Blackrock Automation Top VTScada System Integrator Worldwide at their sold out VTScadaFest Users’ Conference in Orlando, Florida. This is the second year in a row that Blackrock received this award.

For over ten years, Blackrock has been developing stand-alone SCADA applications of every size. These systems commonly include PLCs, RTUs, servers, networks, firewalls, radios, and software applications. By 2016, they had found that many of their prospective customers who required advanced SCADA functionality did not yet have the resources to maintain this level of infrastructure. To serve these customers at an appropriate price point, Blackrock developed their own cloud-based SCADA system using the same VTScada software platform that they used for large stand-alone systems. Kevin Heller is the President and Senior Integrator at Blackrock. “These clients aren’t large enough to support or justify their own systems. Our goal is to help them grow their own applications and eventually move them to their own systems.”

Stand-Alone Vs. Cloud-Based SCADA

Rather than individual customer systems, this cloud-based SCADA application is owned and operated by Blackrock who provides SCADA-as-a-service to multiple end users. Start-up is fast and inexpensive. Blackrock simply provides cellular modems which communicate with the central application hosted in their data center. End users monitor and control their processes and access their historical data via Thin Client connections from their PCs or mobile devices.

Typical Applications

Heller describes how their customers are currently utilizing their hosted application. “We currently have four small-to-medium-sized clients leveraging the system at over 150 locations in Canada and the US. There is a mix of a portable rental equipment and fixed equipment. This includes separators for new wells to reduce the sand and pressure so they do not damage the equipment while still getting the three phase (oil/gas/water) testing completed. There are also line heaters and water treatment plants. We even have a fish hatchery. There is a pretty good variety.”

The Design Process

Heller and his team assembled a list of requirements for the monitoring and control software that would be the basis of their hosted system. “We needed better data gathering, remote access, audit trail, reporting, and trending for multiple clients in a centralized location. The software needed to communicate with multiple different platforms which included, but was not limited to, Rockwell Automation (ControLogix®, CompactLogix Micro 800®), Spirit Flow®, Emerson ROC®, and Modbus TCP devices without third party product intervention. Each of our customers needed to be able to access their I/O, screens, and detailed reports; we call this a package, from anywhere in North America. Having it centralized in the cloud so different clients can access their process on different networks was a must. We also needed seamless thin client access.”

“We completed many comparison studies. The typical criteria included historian, third-party data access (e.g., OPC, ODBC etc.), scalability, functionality, auditability, trending, alarm and event compliance, security, remote access, reporting, and integrated communication drivers. VTScada software by Trihedral was number one in all but a couple categories, in which it was number two, so with a weighted average, it was always number one. Also, Trihedral’s technical support is industry leading.”

Standard Vs. Customized Functionality

One of the challenges of hosted systems is balancing standard tools used by everyone, and customized elements based on individual needs. “VTScada has integrated reporting and drivers for most hardware in the industry. It also has trending that is second to none and the alarm and event auditing is simple and intuitive. VTScada allows us to standardize objects and data types. This project is based on multiple clients with multiple different end devices and different connectivity, so we took it client by client to customize their realm or application to be fit for purpose for their needs while maintaining a simplified functional access to their information.”

System Architecture

This cloud-based system is a single application running on two redundant servers hosted in a data farm with Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPSs) and redundant Internet Service Providers (ISPs). “We have real-time failover using the VTScada Dual Server Premium Bundle licensing package as well as daily system backups,” says Heller. “The servers sit on separate systems as do the backups so there is no one single point of failure.”

Customers interact with their processes using a combination of screens, trends, and reports that Blackrock calls a package. These templated packages are bench-tested and accessed by logging into a thin client connection on a PC or mobile device. “Prior to putting them into service, we test with end user personnel to verify the connection to the I/O,” says Heller. “Additionally, one of our field techs verifies communications, security matrix, callouts, and reporting for each package.

High Performance Graphics

Blackrock chose to adopt High Performance Graphics as the design philosophy for the system’s display pages. Based on the ISA101 Human-Machine Interfaces standard, this approach helps operators effectively manage complex systems by drawing their eyes to emerging problems. “We use high performance as a standard, so all clients get used to it and for minimal screen irritation to personnel eyes. The process is straightforward,” says Heller. “Once we have the RGB and colour palette confirmed with the client, we basically replicate the process equipment and devices from the P+ID’s and electrical drawings.” In addition to VTScada’s standard libraries of grey-scale images and widgets, Heller and his team have created their own reusable High Performance objects.

The Completed Hosted System

The initial design work started September 2017 and the first customer was online a few months later. “We are proud of the flexibility and reliability of a system that can have many factors causing it to fail with regard to connectivity to portable units,” says Heller. One standard VTScada feature turned out to be a surprise hit. “Alarm callouts,” says Heller. “We never thought the end user would want or need them, so it was nice they were included in the package and are easy to configure.” Since Trihedral does not obsolete VTScada software versions, Blackrock will not need to periodically rebuild their system from scratch. “The application ideally, will scale indefinitely,” says Heller.

Words of Advice

Heller has this to say to those evaluating software for their stand-alone or hosted SCADA systems, “Put together a list of criteria that is important to your needs. Add a scoring value to each of them and then pick three or four to compare. Make sure to include VTScada as it will likely score the highest and be the obvious choice.”

Other Blackrock Success Stories Using VTScada

  • Zargon Oil & Gas Ltd. are a Western Canadian producer that use their knowledge of reservoir engineering and the geosciences to increase oil recovery factors and oil production from existing oil reservoirs. They employ a variety of exploitation techniques including waterfloods and tertiary floods.
  • Teine Energy are a private company focused on developing low cost, repeatable, long reserve life index, high netback oil and gas assets. Their Viking light oil production and land position portfolio continues to grow in Saskatchewan and Western Canada. Currently Teine control over 480 net sections within the greater Dodsland area. Their completed system includes three servers, ten thin clients, two runtime clients, five plants, and 240 remote sites, and counting.
  • Birchcliff Energy Ltd. are a Calgary based intermediate oil and gas company that explore for, develop and produce natural gas, light oil and natural gas liquids. Their operations are concentrated in the Peace River Arch area of Alberta, one of the most desirable natural gas and light oil drilling areas in North America. This system currently includes two SCADA servers, one runtime client, thin clients, remote compressors, test facilities, and 180 wells.
  • Harvest Operations Corp. are a wholly owned subsidiary of Korea National Oil Corporation (KNOC). Harvest are a significant operator in Canada’s energy industry offering exposure to exploration, development, and production of crude oil and natural gas (Upstream) and an oil sands project under development in northern Alberta (BlackGold).
  • Hammerhead Resources Inc. are a growth-oriented private company with corporate headquarters in Calgary, Alberta, and operations in the Alberta Deep Basin where they are developing multi-zone, light-oil rich plays. The Company is focusing development activity in the Montney and Duvernay formations in the Alberta Deep Basin, in which it holds >200,000 net acres – the majority of which is owned 100% without encumbrances.

Contact Blackrock

Kevin Heller, President and Senior Integrator at Blackrock Automation Limited