GULF CANADA — ITX Award Honourable Mention

Gulf Canada Resources is a senior independent oil and natural gas company with headquarters in Calgary. It has an asset base in excess of $5.5 billion and reserves of more than 1.4 billion barrels of oil. In 1985, Gulf Canada sold its marketing and refining divisions and became an exploration and production company only. Since that time, it has acquired several smaller oil companies and has assets in Indonesia, the North Sea and Australia. To achieve its vision of becoming one of the world’s preeminent oil and natural gas companies, Gulf must find more oil and gas, do it better than its competitors, and at less cost. The company’s business plan is therefore to grow the company with a balanced program of exploration, exploitation and acquisition.

Geophysicists find and exploit oil and gas reserves by examining seismic data. Crews “shoot” data along seismic lines and take extensive geophysical records in a variety of forms. Geophysicists then process the raw data by applying a series of corrections to it to create a “stack tape” and a pictorial version of the line. Unlike other types of automated records, seismic data consists of one extremely long record. The sheer volume of seismic information per line makes it difficult to store and retrieve on conventional media. Special high-density tape is therefore the storage medium of choice.

By 1996, Gulf Canada had accumulated an enormous amount of data. It had more than two million physical items, such as tapes and field notes, dating back to the 1940s from numerous sources, including its own surveys, those of the companies it had acquired, data owned jointly with other companies and data it had purchased. The company’s seismic assets, on which it based many of its decisions, were stored on a wide variety of media from analogue tapes, reels and cartridges, to paper, film and microfilm. They were spread out across five conventional physical warehouses.

When a geophysicist wished to examine the seismic data for a particular area, he or she had to make a request to a data technician who would determine what lines were needed and then initiate a physical search of the warehouses. The tapes requested would then be boxed and physically transported from the warehouse to Gulf’s offices, where the technician would unpack and inspect the tapes, make sure the desired data was available, and mount the tapes for the geophysicist to examine. The whole process would often take weeks to complete.

This system of data management, while common in the oil and gas business, was problematic for two main reasons. First, with land sales and potential “plays” occurring every two weeks, it was extremely difficult to make timely decisions based on all known information about a property. Clearly, the more seismic information the company could bring to bear on its decisions, the better it could decide where it wanted to do further work. Second, the company’s data assets, on which its future depended, were extremely vulnerable. There was no back-up. When needed, the only copy of the information requested would be physically transported to Gulf’s offices. The tapes on which the data resided deteriorated with each reading. Thus, protecting its seismic assets was fundamental to the future of the business.

The Vision. In 1996, Alice Bienia and Kathy Taerum, the geoscientists in charge of the company’s data assets, decided that it was time to improve the storage and management of Gulf’s seismic data. This would not only protect valuable company assets, but would enable geophysicists to access data directly themselves from their desktops, rather than going through a data technician. This would improve cycle time, extend the life of the seismic data assets, and provide more effective data-management techniques.

The IS Challenge. Finding the appropriate technology to efficiently and effectively manage seven terabytes of data was the initial challenge. Bienia and Taerum brought in Excalibur-Gemini, a seismic-data consulting firm, to assist in preparing a Request for Proposals and manage the project. While many possible solutions were suggested, most only solved part of Gulf’s problem. For example, while the data could have been put on CDs, it would have been stored in a proprietary format which would mean that the company would have to maintain all its original tapes, because the data could not be recreated if the CD company went out of business. Other solutions didn’t provide back-up or disaster recovery. After an extensive review of all responses, Kelman Technologies (KTI) was selected to consolidate and archive the physical data on its Data Management and Storage System (DMASS).

This system consists of a data bank of 3590 tapes each holding 10GB of data. Using a robotic data-storage system, DMASS is able to automatically respond to a client request for data, select the appropriate tape, read it and deliver the data to the desktop in a matter of minutes. Proprietary software and duplicate systems ensured that data integrity, security and disaster recovery were addressed. Gulf Canada technicians worked with KTI to help develop the user interfaces.

Brian Widdoes, CIO of Gulf Canada, joined IS after the project had gotten underway, and he had to determine what role IS would play in it. A quick review of the project’s objectives showed that the project team had done its homework and was moving the company toward a totally integrated environment. Satisfied that Taerum had addressed security and integrity concerns, he asked himself, “What’s the best thing I can do to make this project happen?” Instead of adopting a “not-invented-here” attitude or going back over what had already been done, he decided that a collaborative approach between IS, KTI and the user community would be most effective. Thus, IS played an enabling and oversight role for the project.

IS’s other main responsibility was to develop the telecommunications linkages between Gulf’s office and KTI’s computer room. Calgary is fortunate in that it has excellent fibre-optic networks that enabled IS to create a virtual private connection between the two organizations. IS specialists tuned this network so that as much as one gigabyte of data could be rapidly sent between the companies.

The retrieval and movement of the data assets was a huge task. With so much data from so many sources, there were a wide variety of different naming conventions and no standards. The team had to map the data, identify duplicate information and oversee its transfer from the warehouse to KTI. Because data in a particular geographic area took several months to transfer, the team had to devise a mechanism to keep track of every tape so that it could be used in the interim if necessary. Since all processed data was kept, there were often 15 to 20 stack variations of the same raw data. Eventually, the team found a mechanism that could recreate different versions of the processed data from the original without having to store all the different copies.

By June 1998, most of the core seismic lines had been transferred to KTI. Since that time, any Gulf employee has been able to query, retrieve, view and plot seismic data online from their workstation. New and non-core data has gradually been added and today, users can access all seismic data for western Canada, the Northwest Territories and some parts of the northern United States.

The data technicians loved this system from the start because it made their jobs so much easier. Initially, the geophysicists were uncertain about calling up their own data. Gulf adopted a process of gradual education for them and the system was slowly accepted. Interestingly, over a year later, their data access, as measured by the number of lines looked at, is up 340 per cent relative to the old system.

Business Value. This system is generating considerable benefits for Gulf Canada. First and foremost, the company’s valuable data, on which its business is based, is now secure and protected from deterioration. Second, Gulf’s geophysicists can now make drilling and other types of decisions with more confidence because they have access to more data for an area. Data analysis and decisions can also be made within days or hours rather than weeks. Third, the productivity of Gulf’s data technicians is up more than 400 per cent and several staff have been able to be redeployed. Finally, once archived in DMASS, original field tapes do not need to be accessed ever again, saving the company the cost of storage and couriering. The company is now actively investigating how this system can be expanded to seismic data in other parts of the world and to other types of scientific data.

Service Excellence. The resulting system gave Gulf Canada virtual control over its own data 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Geophysicists now have almost instant turnaround on their data requests. The system also provides additional functions, such as the use of interpretation tools and the creation of maps and reports, which enhance their views of the data.

Gulf Canada’s seismic archive is the largest and most sophisticated of its kind in the world. Its integration of robotic technology, advanced telecommunications and detailed knowledge of seismic data, gives it a significant competitive advantage and leading-edge data management processes. The speed with which such large amounts of data can be accessed and delivered to the desktop is unprecedented and sets a new standard for data processing in the oil and gas industry.

Heather A. Smith is a Senior Research Associate at the School of Business, Queen’s University, and coordinator of the ITX Awards University Advisory Council. She is a co-founder of the Queen’s I/T Management Forums, which explore IT and knowledge management issues, and the author of Management Challenges in I/S . She can be reached at