The Fascinating Price of “Free”

December 7, 2021
Zack Warren

As a software purchaser, you’ll never come across a more controversial, tempting, and frightening price than “free”.  

Freeware isn’t new by any means, but its recent spread in the world of oil and gas software means that everyone from E&P IT departments to software vendors need to grapple with it.  In this post, we’ll dive into the three key criteria for the success of “free” – curationsocial proof, and a functional ecosystem.

What on earth could be controversial about free?!

From the perspective of an Information Technology professional charged with ensuring security, durability, and reliability – just about everything.  Those concerns aren’t always justified, but without curationsocial proof, and a functional ecosystem, there are major obstacles.  Add in a compliance-oriented perspective like a General Counsel or accounting auditor, and the barriers to “free” inside of E&P companies are often very, very high.

That said, most sectors are evolving to be more friendly towards free.  Linux dominates modern cloud servers, and the robust projects of the Apache Foundation underpin the modern cloud.  The Android OS (Linux under the hood) controls >70% of the mobile phone market.  So what are the factors that can help the various Flavors of Free break through in enterprise O&G?

  • First, some entity needs to curate the ocean of software available down to the specific relevant package(s) required to solve an enterprise problem.  Red Hat does it for Linux, the Apache Foundation does it for Kafka, Hadoop, and Spark.  For-profit software firms try to curate for you by bombarding you with “marketing and sales”.  Without curation to sift through the noise, how does a company even *find* good software, much less distill down the range of options?
  • Second, unless your organization is a true early adopter, you need social proof to be persuaded to give something novel a chance.  And let’s be honest, *very* few O&G companies are early adopters (for very good reasons).  Unless you know someone who’s using free stuff from QGIS or Well Database, you’re incredibly unlikely to try them.  Social proof isn’t always that hard to gain, but how do purchasers find it?
  • The final big factor in open source adoption is the need for a functional ecosystem around the tools.  No website?  No credibility.  No consulting firms talking up the capabilities to potential customers?  No awareness.  No training programs, credentialing, or documentation?  No ability to support it once it’s installed.  Well-run open source projects check these boxes, but those without that ecosystem are almost doomed to irrelevance.

So, what are some examples of tools that pass these three criteria?  First, a few “free” tools available from outside of Open Source – vendors that have decided it’s in their best interest to give out a free taste:

  1. We discussed this in our “Commercial Models Eat Technology for Lunch” article, but Well Database has a freemium level of access for their public well data subscription service.  It restricts features vs. their full version, but is pretty useful for surveillance work.
  2. Ryder Scott is a 3rd party reserves evaluation firm with a strong worldwide reputation.  They make a series of reservoir engineering-specific tools available for free to their clients.  These tools range from Excel plugins on the low end, all the way to heavily tested Windows applications for things like NODAL analysis and material balance simulations.
  3. Boltwell is a forecasting, type curve, and geospatial package built by people at Presidio Petroleum and available for free on their website during Beta testing.  They aren’t the only team that has released Beta test tools this way, but they can certainly be hard to find.

Now, a few resources to be aware of in the Open Source world:

  1. QGIS is (in our opinion) the single most relevant open source software project for O&G enterprises.  By a long shot.  The first release dates to 2002, and there is a full ecosystem of developers and consulting companies that can help with training, implementation, and troubleshooting.  Dozens of E&P companies use it as a complement or replacement for ESRI ArcGIS.  QGIS is a great place to dip your toe in the Open Source waters.
  2. Software Underground is a collaboration among over 50 geoscientists from around the world. They have posted a series of curated repos on GitHub under the name Awesome Open Geoscience, with tools ranging from geophysics to petrophysics, geothermal, climate science and the rest.  They host events and have an active Slack channel.  Some particular bits of interest include OpendTect and 
  3. Equinor (yes, the operator-formally-known-as-Statoil) has a public GitHub site with over 450 repositories and an active program to encourage the use of Open Source software internally.  They also made the fascinating decision to release raw data associated with the Volve field in the North Sea a few years ago.  

So, what should you do with this information if you’re an enterprise O&G software purchaser? 

Above all, use the filters – without curation, social proof, and a functional ecosystem, the hurdles for adoption will be high.  Choose your battles wisely, and be sure you’re estimating a Total Cost of Ownership that reflects issues like support and maintenance.  The annual invoices for proprietary software are painful, but poorly maintained tools can cost even more in the end.

Above all, take it slow and recognize that the culture shock of any technology change takes time.  Find some wins, celebrate them, then re-calibrate your next steps.


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