Linux gushes savings for oil giant

Saddled with low oil prices and a need to cut costs, global oil giant Amerada Hess Corp is saving millions of dollars by replacing a costly IBM supercomputer with high-end parallel clusters running Linux, the free Unix variant that some CIOs still regard as a wild card.

A 32-node Linux cluster, called a Beowulf supercomputer, lets the company render detailed 3-D images of the sea floor from terabytes of data.

The $US130,000 Beowulf system performs the task in about the same time -- two weeks -- as the 32-node IBM SP2 system running AIX that the company paid $2 million to lease for three years, said Vic Forsyth, Amerada Hess' Houston-based manager of geophysical systems.

Though the company could have saved at least hundreds of thousands of dollars by opting to set up Windows NT clusters, porting its Unix rendering application would have been a huge chore, Forsyth said. The application is about 2 million lines of code and might have taken years to rewrite for Windows, he said. "We thought about that for three nanoseconds."

When oil prices reached the lowest point of the 1990s late last year, Forsyth said, the New York-based, $6.6 billion oil company made the leap to Linux, even though many CIOs still regard the operating system as too untested to be trusted with even comparatively meagre jobs like file serving.

But after the geophysicists sold their business unit's vice president on the idea of using Linux, the information technology department became willing to embrace the effort as well, said senior systems programmer Jeffrey Davis. Hess' IT culture is end-user-driven, he said.

Forsyth and Davis said the company had been eyeing Linux for years, but the company wanted to see Linux mature more, Davis said. Red Hat Software's more recent distributions of the operating system made it easy enough to install and manage, Davis said. Even so, Hess programmers had to write some custom applications to manage the clusters to approximate the management capabilities that are included with the SP2. "If I can save $1 million, I'll write a few programs," Davis said.

Amerada Hess implemented one Linux system from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based Paralogic last year, bought another from Dell Computer at the beginning of the year and ordered a third from Dell last week. The latest one will cluster 32 500MHz Pentium III processors and sport 1Gbyte of RAM on each processor's system board.

As strategic as oil exploration is for companies, it isn't a sacred cow when budgets must be brought in line with slumping oil prices, said Steve Enger, an oil industry analyst at Petrie Parkman & Co in Denver. "The companies have been working pretty diligently, in some cases for many years, to try to reduce costs," he said. Amerada Hess, for instance, is spending only $250 million on exploration this year compared with $400 million last year, a 37.5-per cent cut.

There are benefits beyond the cost difference, Forsyth said. Amerada Hess owns the hardware rather than leases it, can now sublease the SP2, can upgrade each node in the Linux cluster with more commodity components and can eventually salvage each node for use in a PC after an upgrade.

Meanwhile, he said, Amerada Hess can reinvest its savings in buying better seismic data, which can in turn produce more accurate images, which increase the company's chance of finding oil.

Linux-based Beowulf clusters have become popular supercomputers at several national laboratories, government agencies and universities. But they have been rare in the private sector because CIOs have only begun to consider Linux a reliable, supportable operating system.

In one project at the University of Texas at Austin, researchers in the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering have found that a Beowulf cluster with 16 400MHz Pentium II processors could perform oil-reservoir simulation calculations about as quickly as a comparable SP2.