Business challenge

Oil and gas companies need fast results from seismic surveys to determine the right bidding strategy for new sites. As data volumes grew, Earth Signal had to ramp up performance to meet rising demand.


Earth Signal upgraded to an IBM Power® Systems L922 with two IBM POWER9 processors, deployed alongside four existing IBM POWER8® processor-based servers.



performance increase for floating-point computations, accelerating analysis


more detailed seismic surveys to clients faster than before


low environmental footprint in server room

Business challenge story

Finding black gold

Finding exploitable oil and gas reserves depends heavily on interpreting enormous sets of seismic survey data to construct 3D models and 4D time-lapse surveys of what lies underground. All but the largest exploration firms engage partners to perform seismic surveys and to process the results.

As exploration firms often find themselves in bidding wars with competitors for parcels of land, processing speed is critical: the faster the results, the more time they have to determine the all-important bidding strategy. For seismic-processing firms like Earth Signal, this translates into growing pressure to increase their data-crunching capabilities.

Kevin Rakos, System Administrator at Earth Signal Processing, says: “Clients always want bigger seismic data sets—we’re currently bidding on a job with 0.5PB of raw data—processed in shorter timeframes and at lower cost. That means a constant challenge to squeeze the maximum compute power out of the minimum footprint. Equally, as computing power increases, complex algorithms that were previously too costly in both time and dollars become feasible, so the workload is always increasing.”

Three years ago, Earth Signal, with the help of IBM and Softchoice, began migrating from Intel Xeon processor-based servers to IBM Power Systems S822L servers with IBM POWER8 processors, achieving 40 percent greater performance and 40 percent less power consumption in one-twentieth of the rack-space, with each IBM processor outperforming five Xeon processors on Earth Signal’s own benchmark.

“With data sets continuing to grow, we were keen to try the new POWER9 processors, which IBM initially estimated would provide a 20 percent per-core boost in performance versus the most recent POWER8 processors we had deployed,” says Rakos.

We tested the L922 for about a month, running every program and calculation that we normally use, and it was 100 percent faster across the board.

Kevin Rakos, System Administrator, Earth Signal Processing

Transformation story

Powering through data

IBM loaned Earth Signal an IBM Power Systems L922 server with two POWER9 processors with the same clock speed as its existing processors, and the same number of cores and threads.

“We copied our existing code to the new server without recompiling, and we immediately thought something had gone wrong, because we saw a 100 percent improvement in performance,” recalls Rakos. “A server with essentially the same specs shouldn’t be able to do that. We tested the L922 for about a month, running every program and calculation that we normally use, and it was 100 percent faster across the board—really amazing!”

An email exchange with an IBM engineer revealed the secret behind the performance boost: while the POWER9 processor retains the maximum 96 threads per socket of its predecessor, in SMT mode each thread can access significantly greater computational resources as well as more L3 cache capacity. For floating-point scalar workloads, the POWER9 processor provides four double-precision units for each group of one to four threads, with each unit able to perform a floating-point-multiple-add (FMA) operation. For SIMD codes, each pair of double-precision units supports up to four single-precision or two double-precision operations. Each POWER9 thread in SMT mode gets access to four times the scalar floating-point units, or twice the SIMD units.

“A single processing run for Earth Signal involves billions upon billions of floating-point calculations, so reducing the number of instructions the processor has to run for these calculations is right in the sweet-spot for us,” says Rakos.

Since the loaned L922 server was already specified to Earth Signal’s requirements, the company purchased it through Softchoice, and is now using it to crunch through clients’ datasets twice as fast as before. The same model of server forms the backbone of the Summit supercomputer, number one in the world for outright performance as of November 2018, and number three in the Green500 list for the best performance per watt. This high standard in energy-efficiency is reflected at Earth Signal, where Kevin Rakos notes that power consumption and heat output have not increased despite the doubling in performance for floating-point arithmetic.

The IBM POWER architecture gives us far more performance than x86 in a much more compact and efficient form-factor.

Kevin Rakos, System Administrator, Earth Signal Processing

Results story

Scaling performance, not infrastructure

In order to improve subsurface imaging, derive rock and stress field properties, seismic surveys being acquired today are much denser than in the past. In the course of refining these images, a processing center will typically replicate them tenfold, with numerous computationally intensive processes along the way, so that the data volumes can become truly staggering. Earth Signal’s latest Power Systems server is helping it meet client demands for processing ever-larger sets of data.

“We’ve even seen projects in the hundreds of millions of traces—an order of magnitude increase over the past three years,” says Rakos. “It’s also becoming much simpler for companies to acquire huge amounts of data because the recording equipment is smaller and more cost-effective. With our in-house code running on IBM POWER9 processors, we’re confident that we can handle these rising volumes and outcompete our multinational rivals.”

Earth Signal’s corporate policy is to write bi-endian, ANSI- and POSIX-compliant C code, avoiding any system-specific calls to maximize portability and reusability. This policy enabled the company to complete its original migration from x86 to the Power architecture in a matter of hours, and to double its performance without even recompiling when moving from POWER8 to POWER9 processors.

“In our industry, other companies have gone down the route of cobbling together as many x86 processors as they can, and the result is a sprawling, energy-hungry infrastructure,” says Rakos. “The IBM POWER architecture gives us far more performance than x86 in a much more compact and efficient form-factor, and we’re looking forward to continuing to upgrade to POWER9 as new projects come in.”

Earth Signal logo

Earth Signal

Founded in 1993, Earth Signal Processing is a global leader in seismic data processing, helping clients in the oil and gas industry to crunch their data faster and in greater detail to find new opportunities for profit. Specializing in onshore, high-resolution 2D and 3D seismic data processing, the company’s proprietary SeisRight processing software offers extremely fast and accurate results to clients.

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