The old expression had it that when someone was out of touch with reality their head was in the clouds. But now, in a world driven by Internet connectivity, it's probably a good thing to have one's head and most of the functions performed in business hovering somewhere in the cloud.That has certainly been the experience of Calgary-based FourQuest Energy, a privately owned multinational oilfield
service firm with operations in Canada, the U.S., Kazakhstan, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and elsewhere.The company, founded in 2008 by partners Karl Gannon, Nik Grgic, Zoran Bajic and Dave Wilson, focuses primarily on mechanical pre-commissioning, commissioning and scheduled maintenance and shutdowns.The fast-growing company, which now has 250 employees, offers services ranging from steam blowing, air blowing, oil flushing, fluid pumping and filtration, to engineering and procedure writing, pipeline testing, chemical degassing and decontamination--all of which are in great demand in an industry focused on environmental performance and productivity.Mark Gannon, brother of co-founder Karl Gannon and the company's information technology (IT) manager, says FourQuest's shift to a cloud-computing platform hosted by Microsoft Canada, which began two years ago, has allowed it to greatly improve its productivity and communications among employees.
"What was important to us is to be able to deliver the same services as in the past but to have better ways of communicating," he says.The shift to Microsoft's public cloud platform has not only allowed the company to improve its communications and its productivity, but to save potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars, says Gannon.As an example, he says when it opened a new office in Dubai, it didn't have to invest in new servers for the office there, nor add servers at its Edmonton office.Sales and service personnel have greatly improved their productivity company-wide, he says. "They don't need to be tech savvy if they're using the cloud, since all of our data is managed on the cloud. Microsoft is in this game. We can't invest the same time and resources as they do."Cloud computing is a general term for anything that involves delivering hosted services over the Internet. Most of us have used the cloud, even if we're not aware of it. For example, users of social networking, file sharing and banking are taking advantage of a cloud platform.Businesses using the cloud can choose the level of services they want, with a pay-per-use model.Developers of oil and gas software packages are moving client server-based applications to cloud-based modes. These include such applications as land and right-of-way management, rig tracking, fleet management, water monitoring, and supervisory control and data acquisition management.A primary driver in the oil and gas business is the ability to collect and transmit remote data.In the case of FourQuest, the shift to the cloud at this point has involved using it for email and customer relationship management, which allows for access to customer data, leads and account information. Sales information can also be updated and uploaded in real time.FourQuest also uses Microsoft's SharePoint web application framework, which integrates the intranet, content management and document management. Closely integrated with Microsoft Office and aimed at non-technical users, it allows for document and file management collaboration, social networks, extranets, websites, enterprise search and business intelligence and workflow automation.The company also utilizes Microsoft Lync, an instant messaging service available with Microsoft 365 (soon to be replaced with a new service combining Lync and Microsoft-owned Skype).In addition, it uses Microsoft Azure, a cloud-computing platform that allows customers to tap into the company's 19 data centres worldwide, which offer almost unlimited computing power.FourQuest isn't using the cloud now for its human resources management or accounting services, but plans to start doing so later this year.Because the cloud is accessible from all devices, including laptops, tablets and smartphones, it is the perfect tool for today's mobile world, Gannon says. "It allows you to be productive using any device," he says. "Your data goes with you."TECHNOLOGY LAGGARDSJason Hermitage, vice-president, marketing and operations for Microsoft Canada, says despite substantial evidence that the cloud can save small and large companies substantial dollars and time--while also improving productivity--a recent survey the company conducted in Canada showed 90 per cent of senior corporate executives "didn't know what the cloud was." Almost half of small business managers thought it was only applicable to large businesses.That same study showed that smaller businesses that capitalize on the cloud "have the ability to go head-to-head with companies of any size," he says.Because cloud services are hosted from a remote site, companies using the service have more resiliency and flexibility, he notes. For example, following major disasters, such as the Calgary floods of 2013, companies with cloud capabilities were back up and running within hours.In Canada, small businesses using the cloud saw their number of employees grow by 16 per cent in the last three years, while the growth was only two per cent among so-called "tech laggards."Hermitage says use of the cloud allows businesses to better manage their operations and control costs "because Microsoft is managing their IT services."Microsoft is not the only computer service company offering cloud-based services, of course. However, the IT giant has targeted the oil and gas industry, which it sees as a laggard in the area.In late November, the company held the Cloud and Mobility Summit for two days in Calgary, with the aim of introducing cloud-based services to the industry. The response was encouraging, company officials say.It needed to be. While the appreciation and understanding of cloud services among all executives is minimal, it's even worse in the oil and gas industry.The same survey it conducted among executives overall showed that only five per cent of oil and gas industry executives feel confident that they are familiar with cloud computing. Most were unaware that cloud providers can isolate and safeguard their data from other clients.Sean Conroy, global marketing manager for FourQuest, says the company is competing with larger oilfield service firms in the areas where it offers services. He says that's why it was important for the company to adopt the latest technologies, which help it better compete with industry giants.Conroy says the company's growth will likely continue at the same pace as it has since 2008, which will drive it to the use of the best tools to aid productivity.Gannon agreed. "We're bullish on our growth prospects," he says. "In the last six years, we've grown from four employees to 250, and we expect that to be the road map for future growth."