Online Documents Done Slickly

Posted by Big Melv
Aug 30 2014

For Exxon Mobil Oil Corp., it just doesn’t get any more mission-critical than the refinery. The multibillion-dollar conglomerate’s entire business structure stems from the thousands of refineries the company has built around the world.

To help ensure consistent quality during the construction of oil and gas facilities, Mobil has spent about $7 million adopting an on-line documentation system that contains all the specifications necessary to build Mobil plants.

To accomplish this task, the oil company turned to ArborText Inc., of Ann Arbor, Mich., to help create a system based on SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language).

Using this system, users are able to easily search through compound documents for refinery specifications, while Mobil maintains quality control over one of its core corporate assets.

“The primary goal is to reduce the cost of building new installations around the world,” said Larry Sargent, technical manager for the project at Mobil in Dallas. “People have a tendency to change specifications based on personal preferences. We wanted to reduce the possibility for them to make changes that frequently cost us money.”

The infrastructure for the system, which cost about $2 million to deploy, consists of Unix servers from Hewlett-Packard Co., and IBM that are linked via TCP/IP software from FTP Software Inc. to PCs and Unix workstations. To tie the PCs to the system, each desktop is configured with X Window System server software from Hummingbird Communications Ltd.

The project formally kicked off in early 1991, when the Mobil Exploration and Production Center in Dallas began the $5 million process of rewriting the company’s manuals in conjunction with ArborText using SGML tools.

“We initially looked at building the systems using something like WordPerfect, but we wanted to make sure we didn’t use any proprietary software,” Sargent said.

That design goal led Mobil to ArborText, which provided its Adept tools for creating on-line documents.

Originally developed by the Department of Defense, SGML makes it easier to create and track compound documents, adding identification tags to each part of a document.

“SGML has been one of those arcane standards that hung around for years and was only used by technical publishers,” said Craig Cline, an analyst with Seybold Publications in Foster City, Calif. “But once the U.S. government made it a mandate for military procurement, companies began to look at it for their own internal operations.”

That momentum continues as companies seek to deliver more timely information using technologies such as CD ROMs and the Internet, which currently uses a subset of SGML as its document-language standard.

“WordPerfect already supports SGML and there are rumors that Microsoft will support it in Word,” Cline said. “Enough things are coming together to make SGML a fairly hot topic. Companies have figured out that by the time they turn around their documents in today’s business world, they are obsolete.”

The challenge for companies implementing SGML is the ramp-up time associated with writing and deploying SGML documents.

“It definitely took a little while to get it up and running, but once it’s in place, it’s a pretty solid structure,” Sargent said. “A lot of these companies come and go, so we wanted to protect ourselves by using SGML.”

Sargent estimated that Mobil will spend about $300,000 a year maintaining the system. “We have a large user base, but when you think about it, there aren’t a whole lot of people involved in actually creating the documents,” he said.

With individual construction projects sometimes exceeding $500 million, Sargent figured that a 1 percent savings on a single project would justify the approximately $7 million the company spent to develop the system, which went on-line in May 1993.

Next up, Sargent is on his way overseas to show how to construct a similar SGML-based documentation system covering the building of oil rigs. At the same time, Mobil plans to create multilingual versions of on-line documents, starting with German editions.