SKA South Africa joins ‘big data’ project

11 March 2013

Square Kilometre Array South Africa is joining IBM and the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (Astron) in a four-year collaboration to research extremely fast but low-power “exascale” computer systems aimed at developing advanced technologies for handling the massive amount of data that will be produced by the SKA.

As part of this collaboration, South African scientists will be involved in exploring new computer architectures, developing advanced algorithms for radio astronomy imaging, and developing rugged microservers capable of handling harsh desert conditions.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is an international effort to build the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope, which will be co-hosted by South Africa and Australia.

The ultimate ‘big data’ challenge

The project, which aims at a better understanding of the history of the universe, also constitutes the ultimate “big data” challenge, and scientists will have to 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, which IBM calls the era of cognitive systems,” IBM, Astron and SKA South Africa said in a joint statement on Monday.

When the SKA is completed, it will collect 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.”

The Dome partnership

To tackle this challenge, Astron and IBM last year launched a public-private partnership called Dome, which aims to develop an IT roadmap for the SKA. The collaboration includes a user platform that enables organizations from around the world to jointly investigate emerging technologies in high-performance, energy-efficient computing, nanophotonics, and data streaming.

South Africa’s National Research Foundation, through its SKA South Africa unit, is now a user platform partner in Dome, and scientists from SKA South Africa, Astron and IBM will collaborate remotely and at the newly established Astron & IBM Center for Exascale Technology in Drenthe, the Netherlands.

More specifically, according to the three partners, SKA South Africa scientists will focus on three main research themes:

  • Visualizing the challenge -fundamental research will be conducted into signal processing and advanced computing algorithms for the capture, processing and analysis of SKA data so that clear images can be produced for astronomers to study.
  • 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 microservers “desert proof” – capable of handling the extreme environmental conditions in which the SKA will be located.
  • Software analytics – the 64 dishes of the SKA prototype MeerKAT telescope in South Africa will be used for developing a software programme to help design 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.

‘Dream team’ of scientists and engineers

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

According to Dr Ton Engbersen, Dome project leader for IBM Research, 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,” said Engbersen.

“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.”

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

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

SAinfo reporter