Oil & Gas Sector Exploring Grid Technologies

By By Jikku Venkat, CTO, United Devices

October 9, 2006

Last week at the annual meeting of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists in New Orleans, United Devices chief technology officer Jikku Venkat delivered a presentation that described the emerging use of Grid technologies for IT in the oil & gas industry sector. Based on projects United Devices has under way with a number of energy and services companies, Venkat described how he expects Grid technologies to be adopted in the oil & gas space, catching up with other compute-intensive industries like pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, manufacturing, government and financial services.

Information Technology leaders in the oil & gas sector are a bit like folks from Missouri. Suggest that Grid technologies can improve their operations, and they skeptically say, “Show me.”

That is a difficult challenge, because energy companies today exploiting Grid computing to bolster their clusters or harness non-dedicated resources for high-performance computing (HPC) view their successes as competitive advantages, and they are in no hurry to show competitors how to do it. Despite widespread evaluation of Grid and increasing Grid adoption by energy and services companies, publicly acknowledged success stories and project-specific references from the oil patch are rare.

In short, this traditionally conservative industry has been comparatively slow to broadly adopt Grid technologies. That has been the case even though these sophisticated companies live or die by a wide variety of compute-intensive applications that lend themselves extremely well to Grid-enablement, particularly in the disciplines around exploration and production. Instead of being early adopters of Grid, these customers are more likely to either enlarge cluster environments or turn to outside resources for the necessary compute power to run compute-intensive geosciences codes.

But times are changing, and so is the oil & gas industry. A number of energy companies have begun exploring Grid as a strategic technology to help them speed completion of complex computations and transparently optimize use of current computing resources. United Devices has been privileged to work with a number of early adopters who are rapidly realizing the benefits of Grid technologies. As a result, we are confident that the technology is going to see rapid adoption in the oil & gas industry, not just for technical computing, but in the datacenter, as well.

There is strong competition to find replacement reserves economically, and data and compute-intensive technologies like subsurface imaging are on the critical path for these efforts. In addition, newer technologies for reservoir management, such as 4-D seismic imaging for acquisition, processing and interpretation of repeated seismic surveys over time, continue to drive an expanding level of compute power.

Grid Solutions

Against this challenging engineering and competitive backdrop, Grid computing can play a significant role in optimizing the performance of the industry's increasingly critical IT resources. At United Devices, we see a number of areas where Grid technologies can help: the linking and management of dedicated cluster resources; expansion and management of heterogeneous systems; and the reintroduction of technical computing into a virtual environment within corporate general-purpose datacenters.

Although most oil & gas companies are exploring some form of Grid computing solution, there is no such thing as a typical adopter. The entry point depends on the company, its culture and its existing infrastructure, although certainly PC grids, heterogeneous cluster extensions and Grid-enabled high-performance computing alternatives are among the most typical.

We characterize the oil & gas industry today as being in an early evaluation stage for Grid technology, with adoption for production just starting to take place. From our work with both services and E&P companies, we see a number of solutions gaining significant traction:

  • Multi-cluster meta-scheduler for workload management of geographically dispersed clusters and overflow computing resources.
  • Virtual cluster for transparently extending existing dedicated cluster capacity.
  • PC grids for harvesting underutilized cycles from non-dedicated resources.
  • Enterprise HPC grids for more effectively managing heterogeneous computing resources and harvesting cycles from a mixed environment.
  • Data analytics applications for reviewing workload and system performance profiles across heterogeneous clusters to support better decision making.

The benefits offered by these solutions are:

  • Rapid deployment of systems when additional capacity is needed.
  • Improved flexibility in matching resources to applications.
  • Compelling reductions in total cost of ownership (TCO).
  • Improved productivity as scientists focus on core research rather than IT.

Obviously, these scenarios just scratch the surface of Grid technology's potential for energy companies and, as these projects prove themselves, we expect further adoption at an increasing rate not only by our customers but across the whole oil & gas industry. Other than outsourcing to a third-party capacity provider, the only alternatives companies have are to either grow their external overflow computing services or continue to expand their clusters and HPC systems by adding more and more hardware. Both these options exacerbate the system management challenges and ultimately will be economically untenable.

Return To The Datacenter

One area ripe for new development is the datacenter, an energy company's central repository of computing power which is today artificially limited in scope to running mainly business applications. For some time, many technical computing operations in oil & gas have shunned the datacenter in favor of dedicated clusters or HPC systems, which they can directly control.

However, in the datacenter of the very near future, virtualized infrastructure managed through Grid technologies will provide new levels of shared compute power while remaining completely transparent to the technical computing user. In short, E&P organizations can tap into the power, efficiency, peak operating capacities, flexibility, scalability and reliability of company datacenter resources without giving up organizational control.

In this new virtualized datacenter, the infrastructure will be managed as a single, shared pool of capacity with little or no application affinity. Applications like reservoir modeling and seismic processing can be readily modified and dynamically bound to the infrastructure as and when needed. Service levels, reliability and availability will be implicitly addressed through automated provisioning and Grid-based system management.

Grid software will automatically detect failures and find replacement devices available and eligible to run applications. It will scale up or scale down resources, automatically finding additional resources when needed or conversely canceling any that are not. Utility computing resources can even be brought into play, tapping such outside suppliers as Hewlett-Packard and IBM.

Implications for geosciences are obvious. The once-shunned datacenters could return as sources of flexible, scalable and comparatively inexpensive additional compute power for technical applications, augmenting today's clusters and dedicated HPC resources. E&P users can maintain control of their applications and pay the datacenter only for capabilities actually used.


Grid computing offers solutions for the breadth of services and oil & gas companies, from independent E&P operators to multinationals. Extending clusters and HPC systems or even tapping into utility computing resources will give independents broad access to large-scale computing resources such as they have never enjoyed. And larger companies and multinationals will be able to harvest new efficiencies and capabilities by adding virtualized services from their existing datacenters to the technical computing mix, cutting down on the need for often wasteful facilities dedicated to specific applications.

Ironically, it is precisely because oil & gas depends so heavily on compute-intensive operations that the industry so often moves cautiously toward newer technologies like Grid computing and Grid-managed data centers. It is understandable. After all, hundreds of millions of dollars often ride on the decisions made based on seismic studies, reservoir models and visualizations.

However, today the energy industry has begun to adopt proven Grid solutions, both to gain more efficient computing power and to provide more robust resources for running ever more complex and numerous technical scenarios. Some of these Grid advances will happen through extended clusters and HPC systems, and others will come as technical computing once again moves toward the power of Grid-managed virtual data centers.

Given wider adoption of Grid technologies by the energy industry, increasingly when IT shops say, “Show me,” vendors like United Devices are able to do just that.

** This article originally appeared in SEGwire, HPCwire's exclusive coverage of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists International Exposition.

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