Here’s how the Kaleidoscope team solves the two-way wave equation. The first step consists of getting a kind of rough model of the subsurface layers; this model is obtained from some initial preprocessing of the echo data that reveals where the waves travel faster, where they are refracted, and so on. To get a good image, you need a good initial model, so Repsol geophysicists spend weeks and even months crafting it.
Next, the 3DGeo codes use that initial model—a 3-D grid of numbers, just as in the one-way method—to propagate the echoes, each step of the wave front calculated using the wave equation running backward in time. It may sound esoteric, but all this means is that time values plugged into the equation have a minus sign. (The method is also known as reverse time migration.)
The two-way wave equation codes also need to simulate the propagation of the air gun wave through the grid. That’s because you generate your image by comparing this grid of air gun data with the grid of echo data; wherever the two waves intersect, an echo originated at that point. These intersections reveal the contours and interfaces of the surveyed volume.
The Kaleidoscope codes created by 3DGeo consist of several components, written in C and Fortran, that basically solve the wave equation for each point in a spherical wave propagating within the 3-D grid. Computing each point’s next step in the simulation requires about 100 floating-point calculations. For a large seismic survey consisting of 10 000 subsurface cubes, each a 3-D grid with billions of points, and requiring tens of thousands of time steps, your simulation quickly shoots up close to 10 quintillion (1019) floating-point calculations. If you tried to run it on your desktop PC, it would go on for a century before you got an image like those Bevc was looking at.
Meanwhile, at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center, other Kaleidoscope researchers are using their expertise in fluid dynamics and computational mechanics to fine-tune the 3DGeo codes to run on MareNostrum. The machine, which comes in at No. 13 in the Top500 ranking of the world’s fastest computers, has 5120 dual-core PowerPC processors, 20 TB of central memory, and 400 TB of disk storage. Built in 2005 by the Spanish government, MareNostrum resides inside a glass box at the center of Torre Girona’s nave. (Latin for ”our sea,” Mare Nostrum was the ancient Romans’ name for the Mediterranean.)
Other big oil companies and seismic-imaging firms probably have computers as powerful as MareNostrum—or even more powerful. They guard that kind of information as carefully as the National Security Agency would. ”But those systems are busy with exploration projects, with not much time for R&D,” says Michael P. Perrone, a supercomputing expert at IBM, which collaborates with the Kaleidoscope efforts. ”MareNostrum lets the Kaleidoscope partners test their big algorithms.”
What makes seismic imaging particularly challenging for supercomputers is the amount of data involved. The data for one subsurface cube 10 km on a side can reach several gigabytes, and a typical survey consists of thousands of such cubes. ”We’re working with terabytes of data, and this means that in the supercomputer we must manage the input and output of data very carefully,” says José María Cela, a computer engineering professor at the Technical University of Catalonia and a BSC researcher.
To overcome this problem, the Kaleidoscope researchers adopted a divide-and-conquer approach. They divided the cubes into smaller chunks, each going to one of MareNostrum’s computing nodes. In one test, 3DGeo divided a 10-km cube into 512 chunks. MareNostrum took about a minute to process all of them. If the supercomputer were to process the cube as a whole using one node, it would require almost 6 hours.
To speed up the codes even more, the BSC experts came up with several other strategies. They improved the codes by manually verifying the source code for tasks that could run in parallel. They minimized the exchange of data between different tasks and hand-optimized all the calculation routines. Cela says that these changes have improved the processing speed of the original Kaleidoscope code by a factor of five and at the same time reduced memory usage by a factor of two.
But MareNostrum is just a test bed for the Kaleidoscope algorithms. The goal is to develop codes for the next generation of supercomputers. Oil prospectors replace their computers as fast as you replace your PC, and maybe even more frequently—about every two years. ”It’s really a race,” says Ortigosa, Kaleidoscope’s project leader. ”Before you finish coding your algorithm there’s already a new hardware, and you have to start coding again.”
Kaleidoscope’s goal is to develop the algorithm with tomorrow's hardware—the Cell processor—in mind. But programming the Cell is an entirely new world for most coders. The processor’s architecture—one main general-purpose PowerPC core and eight number-crunching units—is so extraordinary that it requires programmers to rethink their strategies. That’s why Repsol partnered with BSC, which has lots of experience with the Cell.
In one initiative, the Spanish researchers are developing a programming environment dubbed SuperScalar, which hides the parallelization task from programmers. It allows them to develop highly parallelized code without worrying about the data flows among processors. This past November, BSC and IBM formalized a partnership to develop a new supercomputer based on the Cell. Francesc Subirada, associate director of BSC, says that nobody knows at the moment what this computer will look like. ”But we do have a name for it,” he says. ”We call it MareIncognito.”
The Kaleidoscope Project had its largest software run late last year. From 3DGeo’s office in California, Bevc and his team loaded their wave equation codes into MareNostrum, more than 9000 km away, and turned them loose on some echo data. Then they waited.
Twenty days later, the supercomputer completed the task. It was a simulated seismic survey. Instead of using a real ship to gather real data, 3DGeo re-created that process in a computer. A virtual ship fired air gun shots, and virtual hydrophones recorded the echoes. In contrast with the conditions of a real survey, however, 3DGeo knew the exact geology of the subseabed volume, a model provided by Repsol. The idea was to apply the wave equation codes to the simulated echoes and then compare the resulting image with the known geology to see how well the codes performed.
The area surveyed was huge: 38 km by 30 km by 15 km, representing a geological setting much like the Gulf of Mexico, with complex salt bodies. The simulation generated 32 TB of data—one of the largest synthetic data sets in the industry, according to 3DGeo. ”I remember folks at BSC said, ’You cannot produce that much data,’ and we said, ’Yes we can,’ ” Bevc says. 3DGeo considered bringing a copy to its own servers, but that much data would take two suitcases full of magnetic tapes.
Next 3DGeo used the data to test its codes. It ran both one-way and two-way wave equation codes. ”We know exactly what the answer should be, so we can see if our code is right,” Bevc says. The result? ”It’s pretty much dead on,” he says. ”We’re able to image things [using the two-way wave equation] that we weren’t seeing before, steep salt flanks and such.”
Also last year, the Kaleidoscope Project began its first production run. It involved real seismic data for a 500-km2 area in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Repsol transported 15 TB stored in hard drives to Barcelona and loaded it into MareNostrum. How long did it take to image the area? Repsol won’t say.
The company is a bit cagey about the details because it doesn’t want to tip its hand to its competitors. Ortigosa says they’re still analyzing the results and that sometime this year, based on those images and other inputs, the company will decide whether to drill or not. ”This is real, not synthetic data, so this time we don’t know the answer,” he says. ”But I’m confident we’ll get it right.”
About the Author
Geophysicist Francisco Ortigosa was photographed by Francisco Guerrero for ”Solving the Oil Equation”, one of our winners. Shooting the MareNostrum supercomputer in Barcelona, Guerrero says, was ”like discovering a hidden world. At the head of the path sat the old chapel structure, and within its ancient walls and stained-glass windows rests this fantastic piece of 21st-century technology. Imagine your desktop computer housed inside an 18th-century antique box.”
Two-Way Wave Equation Seismic Imaging
Goal: To develop advanced seismic-imaging codes based on the two-way wave equation and designed to fully exploit the power of supercomputers.
Why It's a Winner: The codes will generate images of oil and gas reservoirs in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico with more detail than current techniques.
Players: Repsol YPF, 3DGeo, and Barcelona Supercomputing Center
Where: Houston; Santa Clara, Calif.; and Barcelona, Spain
Staff: 28 geophysicists, mathematicians, and computer engineers
Budget: 8 million (about US $11.7 million)