Black gold fuels database development

Canada’s oil industry, besides driving economic growth, also pioneered the development of database technology.

To keep up with an increasing number of wells, Imperial Oil created what was then the largest database in the industry, if not the world, between 1959 and 1961. It consisted of 19 separate categories of data relating to oil and gas wells in Western Canada.

But creating the database – which Imperial did on its own, using internal resources; not surprising, given the secretive nature of the industry – meant overcoming several problems. For instance, each province had different names for similar geological formations, so a name-linkage system had to be developed to ensure consistency. As well, complex geophysical data needed to be stored in such a way to ensure easy retrieval.

Exactly where a particular well was also posed problems. A drilled well can rely on several hydrocarbon-producing formations located far away from the actual wellhead, so one oil well might in fact have several different coordinates.

Imperial’s database was built without knowing exactly how it would be used, and it was used only minimally at first. But as word got around, retrieval requests rose dramatically, and the database eventually dubbed the WDS, or Well Data System.

But that success led to another problem. Not enough programmers were available to handle all the WDS retrieval requests. Reports were handled via a Report Program Generator built by a private company, and which required users to program each report. So backers undertook a study to determine if there were any standard functions used in computer programs of the day. They eventually created GIRLS (Generalised Information Retrieval and Listing System), which handled retrieval requests from the WDS, and which was user-friendly enough to allow non-programmers to generate sophisticated retrieval requests.

GIRLS removed a boring chore from sophisticated programmers. This enabled them to further use their skills in the art and science of finding oil.

Details of the WDS were later presented to IBM Corp., which incorporated the database’s concepts in its MIS (Management Information System) offering.

The WDS was expensive to develop – about $750,000, which at the time was a very large investment – but the investment paid off handsomely. Alberta had a glut of oil and companies, following set quotas, were limited in their production. Every six months a request to the Court could be made for a quota increase, with a short response time allowed to objectors. Imperial developed a simulation program using information garnered from the WDS, which had extensive information about competitor wells. The computer played the competitor quota request against Imperial’s interests. In most cases the figures produced by the simulation refuted the competitor’s claims, saving Imperial hundreds of millions of dollars.

The WDS was well documented, and its documentation standards were distributed to affiliates worldwide.

Another spinoff effect – a huge amount of technical data existed inside WDS. A way of meaningfully accessing this data was needed. That led to what was known as a “double dictionary,” a forerunner of the later database “inverted file” technique. It involved the development of a set of key words, and placing alongside them the names and locations of all documents containing that key word.

The first computer generation of the “double dictionary” used magnetic tape to store the files. The same concept was later adapted to magnetic drums, magnetic discs, then to compact discs, and was also transferred to affiliates around the world.

WDS continued to work effectively until the 1970s, when it was transferred to a commercial firm in Calgary.

Hodson is an Ottawa-based IT industry veteran who has helped develop Canadian computer science programs. Contact him at

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