A New Tool For Big Oil


Courtesy Wall Street Journal / BP

Here I am all ready to call it a night – it is 0051 – and I come across an interesting article [Paywall] in the WSJ on a new tool the big oil companies are using to aid in exploration: Super Computers.

In my programming career, I came from an era where the true mainframes were starting to fade away, and the upstart micro computers were taking over.

I believe at one time Bank of America had an IBM 370/168 – with (gasp!) 128 MB of memory running their thousands of ATMs that they had recently installed around their branches in California. Of course there is still a need for mainframes – as in the above example – they all have to report somewhere – but the “mainframe” now is probably 1000s of micro computers all chained together – such as what Google does. One goes out – it isn’t a catastrophe – the others simply take over the work.

Which – now that I think of it – the legendary Grace Hopper – who was the oldest serving Admiral in the Navy – and considered the “mother of COBOL” – the first real language that was transportable across different computer makes – predicted at a dinner I had with her in San Diego back in 1980.

OK, it was a dinner with me and 1,000 other computer people.

Making an analogy for the future, she said “Imagine you are a pioneer, and need more power for your covered wagon. Do you get a bigger ox, or more oxen?” This is before the concept of networks or distributed processing was really used.

Listen to her talk about processing speed – remember – this is back in the early 80s. Now, according to the article in the WSJ, among the largest commercial supercomputers are the Italian oil company ENI in Italy – at 18.6 Petraflops – BP at 9 Petraflops.

Where CBS’ Morely Safer is talking wistfully of “billions of calculations a second” back in 1983, a Petraflop is one thousand trillion calculations a second.

Facebook, at the bottom rung of top supercomputers, is at 4.9.

Anyway BP’s supercomputer just found a huge oil field in the Gulf of Mexico thanks to their super computer. It was actually a “field within a field”. Probably safe to say only a super computer could find it.

I’d love to know the programming algorithms – lots of probability calculations I am sure.

I am sure that Lex would have been wowed by this lady (who has since passed on).


Amazing lady.


update: 04-25-18It being late I neglected to mention the tie-in between the U.S. Navy and Grace Hopper’s importance in computer design. Back in the 50s, the Navy was searching for a means in programming languages to allow them to keep their investment in software and move it across different makes of computers. That is how COBOL (for COmmon Business Oriented Language) came into being, thanks to Grace and her Navy team. 

Also I have heard from at least one Lexican  who worked for Aramco in the early 90s that they used a Cray super computer. There’s a fascinating story about Cray and its designer but I have wandered enough today 😉 So we are really talking about today of exponentially-expanded power and capability.

update: 05-02-18 – Did not know that Grace Hopper was the author of this famous quote“A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.”

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