IBM looks to new technologies for unprecedented data processing challenge
By Ben Coxworth
April 2, 2012
When completed in 2024, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be the largest, most sensitive radio telescope ever created. It will consist of 3,000 individual ground-based dish antennas, linked to act as one big telescope – an arrangement known as an interferometer. While their combined total surface area will be about one square kilometer (0.39 sq mile), they will be spread out across a geographical area approximately 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) in width. They will be gathering about one exabyte of astronomical data per day, which is twice the amount of data that is handled by the World Wide Web on a daily basis. Today, IBM announced that it has partnered with ASTRON (the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy), in an effort to develop computer systems that will be able read, analyze and store all of that data, and do so in an energy-efficient manner.
The five-year €32.9 million (US$43.8 million) project, known as DOME, will be based out of the new ASTRON & IBM Center for Exascale Technology, located in the Netherlands. SKA, on the other hand, is a collaborative effort involving 67 organizations located in 20 countries. The research goals for the radio telescope include the study of evolving galaxies, dark matter, and even the origins of the universe. That telescope will be located in either Australia or South Africa. Meeting its computing requirements will certainly be no easy task.
Putting it simply, the technology required for such an application just doesn’t exist yet ... or at least, not in a practical sense. According to the researchers, several million of today’s most powerful computers would be necessary in order to handle all that data. Instead, the team is looking towards emerging technologies that show promise. These include 3D stacked chips for maximizing energy efficiency, optical interconnect technologies and nanophotonics for optimizing large data transfers, and phase-change memory systems for data storage.
Existing radio telescopes, however, will play a part in the project. The data-processing optimization system used by the ASTRON-designed LOFAR (LOw-Frequency ARray) will be analyzed, and used as a starting point for the SKA.
Needless to say, the technologies developed should have applications not only for astronomy, but for information processing in general.
“Large research infrastructures like the SKA require extremely powerful computer systems to process all the data,”said Marco de Vos, Managing Director of ASTRON. “The only acceptable way to build and operate these systems is to dramatically reduce their power consumption. DOME gives us unique opportunities to try out new approaches in Green Supercomputing. This will be beneficial for society at large as well.”
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