Mining in the 21st Century is a far cry from what it was 100 years ago. The days of ‘hitting pay dirt’ based on local knowledge, inspired guesswork or pure luck are long gone. Today mining is a high-tech, data-intensive and competitive industry that relies on state-of-the-art tools that facilitate targeted exploration and enable high productivity, operational efficiency, agility and speed. Central to achieving these goals are the insight and intelligence provided by the vast amounts of data that mining companies gather every day about all aspects of their operations. This includes data on everything from geological investigations and mine facilities, to fleet maintenance and financial performance.
For 30 years, Perth-based company Snowden has provided specialised software and consulting services that enable the global mining industry to aggregate, analyse, transform and act on their data. Australia has long been recognised as a hub for mining innovation, and with experience from over 12,000 mining-related projects, mostly in Australia and South Africa, and a suite of industry-leading on-premises software solutions, Snowden is well-positioned to see the technology trends transforming the industry. Among the industry trends Snowden noticed was mining companies wanting to reduce their reliance on traditional on-premise enterprise software solutions, which have high upfront costs, are relatively inflexible and long deployment cycles. Instead, mining firms wanted to move to lower cost, consumption-based, easy to deploy, and flexible alternatives. In addition, customers were increasingly looking for more real-time business insights that would be available to more people, no matter where they might be or on what device they are using.
Snowden recently launched Neuroverse, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution for the mining industry, which is built on the Microsoft Azure cloud platform. Neuroverse takes a subset of the existing capabilities of Snowden’s on-premise mining software solutions and extends them for use in the cloud.
Neuroverse is a cross-platform solution for analysing, exploring and visualising data. Within mining, the most valuable data collected is the geostatistical data that drives and informs mining decisions. Typically, this data is collected in the field by geologists drilling holes in areas previously identified as good candidates for the desired ore bodies. Drill core samples are returned to labs and the extracted geostatistical information is loaded into databases and processed by on-premise software, such as Snowden’s Supervisor tool, for statistical analysis and 3D modelling. Traditionally, the end users of this data have been the on-site technical staff and management, sitting in front of the workstation alongside the trained software operator. However, this makes collaborative and rapid decision-making difficult becauseinformation is stored in different siloes. In this mode of working, business visibility and intelligence are always localised, partial, and usually dated by the time it reaches the key decision makers.
Part of Snowden’s goal with Neuroverse was to break this pattern and enable true collaboration, innovation and business agility across a mining enterprise. Neuroverse enables users to view and exploit the data via a standard web browser on any computer or mobile device. However, almost immediately Snowden identified a major obstacle to this vision. The geospatial data, and the geological resource block models built from these, are typically exported as large .csv files, often many gigabytes in size. Moreover, many mining operations are in remote areas where connectivity to the internet is less than ideal.
“The first thing everyone said when we pitched the idea of Neuroverse was ‘we have these massive models – how are we going to get them up there and get people to use a cloud platform over a desktop application if they have to wait 30 minutes, an hour, two hours or more to get them up there?’,” said Sean Helm, Snowden’s product portfolio manager.
Being able to optimise the available bandwidth and move large data files to the cloud in minutes rather than hours required something more than regular HTTP.
After evaluating different vendor solutions, Snowden quickly settled on the Web Transfer API variant of Flight from Signiant. As a cloud-native SaaS solution for accelerating file uploads to cloud object storage, Flight was a natural fit for the Neuroverse cloud platform. With an auto-scaling, load-balanced cloud infrastructure managed by Signiant, Flight facilitates high-speed transfers of any sized file, over any distance and any network to leading public cloud platforms, including Microsoft’s Azure Blob storage. The Web Transfer API option enabled Snowden to easily build Signiant’s file acceleration capabilities directly into the Neuroverse end-user web interface and enable its mining industry clients to upload block models and other large data sets quickly, regardless of the available bandwidth.
By using built-in Signiant acceleration to overcome the latency challenges of large file transfers, Neuroverse enables Snowden’s mining customers to upload, view and analyse their core business data. It Neuroverse delivers the same user experience on desktops, tablets, even smartphones. With the scalability, reliability, security and global availability of Microsoft Azure behind it, Neuroverse is a compelling option for an industry requiring reliable solutions that work 24/7 worldwide.
Neuroverse users benefit from an extensive suite of tools – called Snowden Apps or SnApps – that collectively provide dashboards, analytics and 3D visualisation modules. In the Neuroverse workflow, the geological block models, drill-hole data or other mining operations data are uploaded from the customer site to the Snowden tenancy on Microsoft Azure Blob storage via the web browser graphical user interface (GUI). This data is then available to all authorised users through the same GUI in near-real time for analysis and visualisation using the SnApps.Snowden presents SnApps as tiles on a GUI in a manner users are familiar with from the interfaces and apps on their tablets and smartphones.
“The goal was to try to define the constraints and limits of each of those tiles so that they behave like an app as well,” said Stuart Trotter, Snowden’s software development manager. “A big part of that is the speed and upload ability we have from Signiant. People using their apps don’t want to wait around for hours for their data. They want things to be snappy and fast, so that was one of the initial drivers to go and look for high speed uploads, and Signiant was the one that we came to in the end.”
Mining companies can also use Neuroverse to interactively view and manipulate integrated dashboard-style statistical analyses and 3D visualisation models on a single screen. Changes or drill-downs in the former are instantly rendered (in the cloud) and displayed as the latter. For example, a user can simultaneously look at an analytics-style dashboard and 3D model that describes the distribution of metal within an ore body. At any point they can then drill down into the data and see the total amount of gold ounces in that main ore zone, and then see automatically generated 3D models representing the geospatial distribution of this gold in terms of the Northing, Easting, and Reduced Level coordinates. And they can do this in near real time thanks to Signiant acceleration.
Geostatistical data and resource block models are just one kind of mining industry data that users can upload into Neuroverse. Snowden’s legacy portfolio of on-premise software solutions addresses virtually every aspect of the mining business – from financials and site management, to equipment maintenance, and drill and blast operations – and all of these capabilities can be provided as SnApps on Neuroverse. Snowden aims to gradually move its mining clients away from their on-premise solutions and instead make Neuroverse the place customers go to for all their mining intelligence needs.
Traditional data of the types Snowden’s legacy applications were designed to work with is no longer the only kind of data available to, or important within, the mining industry. Increasingly whole new classes of data gathered by connected devices and internet of things (IoT) networks can now be captured, distributed and analysed in much the same way. Real-time, or near real-time, data on areas as varied as component failure, dust management, traffic and weather, fleet maintenance and plant performance all fall within this category and can usefully supplement and enrich other more traditional data already utilised.
“The ability to consolidate all this information on a single analytical platform, and compare intelligence from traditional data sources with data from less obvious sources, creates a very valuable solution for mining operations,” said Jason Pearce, Snowden’s general manager of technology.
Much of this data is already supported by Neuroverse using the Microsoft Azure IoT Hub on the back end to manage the messaging.
It is early days for Snowden with this kind of data. But as its importance and ubiquity within the mining industry grows and more data classes get added – some of which will include very large video files from drones or CCTV sources –the need for Signiant acceleration for moving these data classes to the cloud for Neuroverse-enabled analysis will expand correspondingly.