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4/2/2012
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IBM Plans Exascale System For SKA Space Telescope

IBM Research and Dutch astronomy agency Astron work on new technology to handle one exabyte of raw data per day that will be gathered by the world largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometer Array, when activated in 2024.

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When astronomers turn on the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), expected in 2024, the massive radio telescope will begin capturing as much as one exabyte of raw data per day. That's about twice the amount of data currently generated on the World Wide Web each day, but that load is spread across the more than 20,000 autonomous computer systems that power the Internet.

What will it take to build a single computer system that can read, store, and analyze all that data? The Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, known as Astron, and IBM Research announced Monday a five-year, $42 million "DOME" collaborative to develop an architecture for the extremely fast, but low-power platform that will be required.

The SKA, which will become the world's largest and most sensitive radio telescope, is to be developed by an international consortium supported by 20 countries, including Australia, Canada, Chile, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The location has yet to be finalized, but the leading options are in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Construction of the millions of antennas required to complete the project is expected to begin in 2017, so the DOME project will conclude in time to yield a workable architecture.

[ Want more on space exploration? Read NASA Releases Atlas Of Entire Sky. ]

"We understand that the technology available today will evolve, so to use a hockey term, you have to skate to where the puck will be five to eight years from now," explained Ronald Luijten, manager of data center optimization at IBM Research, Zurich, in an interview with InformationWeek.

Current technologies are either too power-hungry, too costly, or too slow and small-scale to handle the SKA challenge. The compute power required will equal millions of PCs, and current data center technologies won't do, as they expend as much as 98% of required power moving data and only 2% doing the actual compute work. Researchers believe 3-D chips, which are starting to be used in a simple form in small-scale electronic devices such as iPhones, would be a first step to delivering the required power without extreme energy demands.

"By putting tens of layers together on a single chip, the distance of connection goes from tens of centimeters on a circuit board to less than a millimeter," said Luijten. "By putting 3-D memory stacks directly on our CPUs, we can shorten the memory bus and perhaps even rid one level of cache, which will also save energy."

Storage presents another major challenge, as the SKA will present an exascale daily data load and long-term storage demands of 300 to 1,500 petabytes per year. Current DRAM is fast enough to handle expected speed requirements, but it's too expensive and power hungry. Flash memory is more affordable than DRAM, but it doesn't meet the speed or durability requirements.

The leading candidate for short-term storage is phase-change memory (PCM), an emerging solid-state technology that uses electrical signals to change the resistance characteristics of special metal alloys. IBM's researchers say PCM is 100 times faster than flash, supports high capacities, and does not lose data when turned off. It's also durable, handling 10 million write cycles, compared to 30,000 for current enterprise-class flash and 3,000 for consumer-class flash.

PCM is too expensive for long-term storage needs and spinning disks are too power hungry, so the leading candidate here is tape. Despite its antiquated image, tape is still the low-cost storage king, and existing roadmaps for the technology foresee 100-terabyte cartridges within the next 10 years. DOME research will study how SKA data can be stored on tape while still supporting active-archive streaming data reading.

Connecting the data collection, compute, and storage aspects of the platform presents a third major power and speed challenge, and the SKA will be spread over a large area. Nanophotonics, an emerging technology that uses light to transmit signals across silicon fibres, is a leading candidate.

"We're studying whether we can sample radio signals directly using photonics rather than electronic methods, so we remove an intermediate step and do everything with [faster and more energy-efficient] photonics," Luijten said.

The DOME collaboration is being financed in large part by the Dutch government, which is promoting the development of the knowledge economy in the Province of Drenthe. A DOME lab to be opened by Astron and IBM in the town of Dwingeloo, the Netherlands, is expected to employ 30 to 50 researchers initially and eventually create 200 to 300 supporting jobs.

The technologies developed through the DOME collaboration will not only benefit the SKA; it's hoped they will contribute to more powerful and energy-efficient commercial data centers in the decades ahead.

When picking endpoint protection software, step one is to ask users what they think. Also in the new, all-digital Security Software: Listen Up! issue of InformationWeek: CIO Chad Fulgham gives us an exclusive look at the agency's new case management system, Sentinel; and a look at how LTE changes mobility. (Free registration required.)

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Andrew Hornback
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Andrew Hornback,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/4/2012 | 2:50:31 AM
re: IBM Plans Exascale System For SKA Space Telescope
You have to keep in mind that when the systems that flew aboard the Shuttle WERE state of the art during the design and integration phase of building the Shuttles. Sure, they became antiquated, but then again... when the last Shuttle flew last year, the basic design was just shy of 40 years old. When was the last time that your life depended on a nearly 40 year old computer getting things absolutely perfect 100% of the time?

Then there's also the term "Man Rated" that comes into play here.

As far as hiring a team a year before the project goes live and asking them to engineer, integrate and test a system to handle this application is borderline on madness.

Personally, I think it's going to be very interesting to watch what the innovation that this project leads to.

Andrew Hornback
InformationWeek Contributor
Tom Mariner
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Tom Mariner,
User Rank: Strategist
4/2/2012 | 5:53:02 PM
re: IBM Plans Exascale System For SKA Space Telescope
IBM. Supplying computers for 12 years from now. With pretty much today's technology.

No slight against IBM, but they were in on the Shuttle and that got to be a joke of out of date technology. The SKA should hire somebody a year before the thing goes live then crank up a miracle using the then-hot technology. Twelve years ago there was no iPod, iPhone, iPad, 65 inch half inch thick televisions were non-existent, and the Internet was a wimpy network.

They may want to wait and go with COTS -- commercial off the shelf stuff that will be the result of 12 years of insanely quick growth.
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
4/2/2012 | 5:15:26 PM
re: IBM Plans Exascale System For SKA Space Telescope
The comment system cut off the link above. Search "Internet Mapping" on Wikipedia.
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
4/2/2012 | 5:05:50 PM
re: IBM Plans Exascale System For SKA Space Telescope
Yes, there are billions of computers connected to the Internet, but a 2011 Canadian mapping of the Internet (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N... suggests far few serving as the backbone of communication. As for "hockey," yes a typo that has been fixed.
rikkuotaku
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rikkuotaku,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/2/2012 | 4:31:32 PM
re: IBM Plans Exascale System For SKA Space Telescope
Apparently not because originally the article read:

"...so to use a hokey term"

but hey why proofread when you can publish first and correct later??
lancelotlinc
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lancelotlinc,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/2/2012 | 4:21:35 PM
re: IBM Plans Exascale System For SKA Space Telescope
Your opening statement is hog-wash. "When astronomers turn on the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), expected in 2024, the massive radio telescope will begin capturing as much as one exabyte of raw data per day. That's about twice the amount of data currently generated on the World Wide Web each day, but that load is spread across the more than 20,000 autonomous computer systems that power the Internet." Please specify the source of your information. 20,000 autonomous computers??? More like 20 billion. I expect more from the senior editor. Did you not proofread your material?
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