SKA joins IBM to build computer systems

2013-03-11 14:56

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Cape Town – The Square Kilometer Array (SKA) is joining Astron, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, and IBM in a four-year collaboration to research extremely fast, but low-power exascale computer systems.

The research is aimed at developing advanced technologies for handling the massive amount of data that will be produced by the SKA.

The SKA is an international effort to build the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope, which is to be located in Southern Africa and Australia to help better understand the history of the universe.

New era of computing

The project constitutes the ultimate Big Data challenge, and scientists must produce major advances in computing to deal with it. The impact of those advances will be felt far beyond the SKA project, helping to usher in a new era of computing.

When the SKA is completed, it will collect Big Data from deep space containing information dating back to the Big Bang more than 13 billion years ago.

The aperture arrays and dishes of the SKA will produce 10 times the global internet traffic, but the power to process all of this data as it is collected far exceeds the capabilities of the current state-of-the-art technology.

"It would require 7 gigawatts of power if we were to build the computers for the SKA using current available technologies. This is equal to two to three nuclear power plants. So obviously, this isn't an option, which is why we are looking at several ways to reduce the energy demands. Optical technology, microservers and 3D water-cooled chips are just some of the technologies," Dr Ton Engbersen, Dome project leader, IBM Research, told News24. 

He said the Access Patterns team is developing a Big Data depository architecture for optimising the management of SKA data.

"In computing, data is stored in a variety of ways, or tiers, depending on how often it is needed and the cost of the storage medium. Magnetic tape is the least costly form of storage, but data retrieval is slow. Disk drives are more expensive, but faster to access.

"Data storage on memory chips is lightening quick, but extremely expensive. Typically, database administrators move data from tier to tier based on rigid policies and schedules. The Access Patterns technology will learn from its interactions with the data and parcel it out to the storage medium that’s most appropriate for each piece at a particular moment in time.

"Regarding the conversion, IBM scientists have developed a prototype analog to digital converter that generates one billion analog-to-digital conversions per second operating from a single 1V supply, with a total power consumption of 3.1mW — approximately 30 times less than what a cellphone uses when it’s idle."

According to him IBM scientists have a roadmap that will put the power of a supercomputer into a desktop size computer by 2025.

"The Dome project is first building an IT roadmap for the SKA. Scientists are first tackling this enormous challenge, but they could imagine using sensors and remote access technologies for overall maintenance."


As part of the global effort to solve this unprecedented challenge, last year, Astron and IBM launched a public-private partnership called Dome, to develop a fundamental IT roadmap for the SKA.

The collaboration includes a user platform where organisations from around the world can jointly investigate emerging technologies in high-performance, energy-efficient computing, nanophotonics, and data streaming.

Through its SKA South Africa unit, the National Research Foundation is now a user platform partner in Dome.

"The Dome collaboration brings together a dream team of scientists and engineers in an exciting partnership of public and private institutions. This project lays the foundation to help the scientific community solve other data challenges such as climate change, genetic information and personal medical data,” said Simon Ratcliffe, Technical Coordinator, Dome-South Africa.

Scientists from all three organisations will collaborate remotely and at the newly established Astron & IBM Centre for Exascale Technology in Drenthe, the Netherlands.


"The Dome research started last year and SKA SA started a few weeks ago. The IBM scientists in Zurich will be meeting with Ratcliffe next week," Engbersen said.

Scientists from SKA South Africa will focus on visualising the challenge. Fundamental research will be conducted into signal processing and advanced computing algorithms for the capture, processing, and analysis of the SKA data so clear images can be produced for astronomers to study.

They will desert proof technology. The Dome team is researching and prototyping microserver architectures based on liquid-cooled 3D stacked chips. The team in South Africa will extend this research to make the microsevers rugged or “desert proof” to handle the extreme environmental conditions where the SKA will be located.

Scientists will also focus on software analytics. The 64 dishes of the MeerKat telescope in South Africa will be used for the testing and development of a sophisticated software program that will aid in the design of the entire computing system holistically and optimally, taking into account all of the cost and performance trade-offs for the eventual 3 000 SKA dishes.

“The Dome research has implications far beyond astronomy. These scientific advances will help build the foundation for a new era of computing, providing technologies that learn and reason. Ultimately, these cognitive technologies will help to transform entire industries, including healthcare and finance,” Engbersen said. 

“For example, we are designing a system for storing information that learns from its interactions with the data and parcels it out in real time to the storage medium that’s most appropriate for each bit, which can also be applied to medical images.”

"Dome is not only innovating in the laboratory, but our user platform is setting a new standard in open collaboration,” said Dr Albert-Jan Boonstra, Dome project leader, Astron.

“In addition to SKA South Africa, four additional organisations are expected to join in the coming weeks including universities and small and medium-sized businesses located in the Netherlands."

The initial five-year Dome collaboration is realised with financial support of the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation (EL&I) and from the Province of Drenthe.

IBM and Astron scientists will be hosting a SmartCloud virtual recruiting event on 26 March for several open positions within the Dome project.


The Square Kilometre Array project is a global science and engineering project to build the world’s largest radio telescope.

The SKA will see back to a time before the first stars lit up. Optical telescopes see the light from stars. Before stars existed there was only gas; a radio telescope with the sensitivity of the SKA can see back in time to the gas that existed before stars were even born.

The SKA will address a wide range of fundamental questions in physics, astrophysics, cosmology and astrobiology. It will be able to investigate previously unexplored parts of the distant Universe.

The SKA will be built in Southern Africa and Australia. There will be 3 000 dish antennas, each about 15m in diameter as well as two other types of radio wave receptor, know as low- and mid-frequency aperture array antennas.

The mid-frequency aperture arrays will be built in South Africa and are envisaged to be a major component of the SKA Phase 2.

The antennas will be arranged in five spiral arms and the dishes in Southern Africa will extend to distances of at least 3 000km from the centre of the core region. Construction of the SKA is expected to begin in 2017 and conclude in 2024.

A South African company has been awarded the contract to build 64 antennas for the new MeerKAT radio telescope. Although they were being designed in Germany and the United States, South Africa owns all related intellectual property rights.

The MeerKAT is the precursor instrument for the giant Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope.

According to the report, two contracts due to be awarded before the end of March were for the antennas' foundations, or radio signal receiving dishes, and a site security contract.

Another contract to install 200km of optical fibre cabling on-site would likely be awarded during the second quarter of the year.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and MeerKAT radio telescope projects have been allocated R1.9bn over the next three years, according to the 2013 Budget tabled by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.

– Follow Chantelle on Twitter.
Read more on:    ibm  |  kimberley  |  ska

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.
NEXT ON NEWS24X publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.