BP opens Houston home for massive supercomputer

HOUSTON – BP opened a computing center on Tuesday that it says is home to the world’s largest supercomputer for commercial research, part of the oil giant’s efforts to out-geek its competitors in finding more crude.

“This is a facility that other nerds are going to be quite jealous of,” said Keith Gray, BP’s manager of high-performance computing.

The computers in the center have a combined 2.2 petaflops of processing power, which means they can make 2,200 trillion calculations per second.

The added speed will help BP basically cut in half the time it takes to process data from seismic surveys, in some cases from one week to half a week, Gray said.

The computers also will help with future data challenges, said Jackie Mutschler, head of upstream technology for BP.

“If you want to drill the best well possible, make the best business decision, you want to get that data as quickly as you can and you want it to be high quality,” she said.

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Advanced computers have played a major role in the current oil boom, helping geophysicists find and analyze underground reserves faster and with more certainty. Recent leaps in computing capabilities have helped mathematicians, software engineers and geophysicists find new ways to analyze seismic data, giving them clear pictures of underground areas that they couldn’t see before.

“It’s not just the computer speed, but it’s also the algorithms you have to write that can actually take advantage of that,” Mutschler said. “So there’s a real art to writing the algorithms that can use this massively parallel kind of computing power.”

The technology has been critical in many of the largest discoveries ever found and produced in the Gulf of Mexico, including BP’s Thunder Horse, Mad Dog and Atlantis fields.

“It allows us to find reserves that we otherwise couldn’t find,” said John Etgen, a BP adviser for seismic imaging.

The three-story center on BP’s campus in west Houston will house 6,000 computers by the end of the year, leaving plenty of empty space in the 110,000-square foot facility for growth, Gray said.

The memory and hard disk capabilities of the center are also substantial. If an average laptop were placed in every seat of Houston’s Toyota Center, their combined memory and hard disk space would be less than half that of BP’s center.

BP turned to Silicon Valley and technology industry leaders for guidance in bulking up its computing capabilities.

HP and Intel helped develop the processing power at the center of BP’s five-year, $100 million investment, the company said.

“Computing is part of the race,” Gray said. “We’ve got to be learning from the best in the industry to win our race.”

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The rows of flashing computer racks operate in rooms that circulate hot and cold air to keep machines from over-heating.

The racks are cooled with massive air- conditioning units that have the combined capability of cooling a 20-story office building, Gray said.

To conserve energy used for cooling, BP engineers took after Silicon Valley companies that use freezer curtains to contain hot air and move it through air conditioners.

“We’ve got really good friends who work at Facebook, and we compare notes and trade ideas,” Gray said.

The center also will use other advanced cooling methods for data centers, including cycling water through racks to help cool them, then sending the water into towers to vent off the heat, Gray said.

As a result, the center will use 30 percent less energy than BP’s previous computing center, he said.

Most power used at the center will run computers and not be used for cooling, said Bob Carnegie, vice president of HOK, the architecture and engineering firm for the building.


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