From Big Bang to Big Data: ASTRON and IBM Collaborate to Explore
Origins of the Universe
– Partners to research the exascale computer systems that are needed for
what will become the world’s largest radio telescope
– Initial 32.9 million EURO, five-year collaboration will materialize in
Drenthe, the Netherlands at the newly established ASTRON & IBM Center for
– Computer system will be targeted to read, analyze and store one exabyte
of raw data per day, two times the entire daily traffic on the World Wide
Drenthe, the Netherlands and Zurich, Switzerland, April 2, 2012: ASTRON,
the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy and IBM (NYSE: IBM) today
announced an initial 32.9 million EURO, five-year collaboration to research
extremely fast, but low-power exascale computer systems targeted for the
international Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The SKA is an international
consortium to build the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope.
Scientists estimate that the processing power required to operate the
telescope will be equal to several millions of today’s fastest computers.
ASTRON is one of the leading scientific partners in the international
consortium that is developing the SKA. Upon completion in 2024, the
telescope will be used to explore evolving galaxies, dark matter and even
the very origins of the universe— dating back more than 13 billion years.
The next generation of large scientific instruments, of which the SKA is a
key example, requires a high-performance computing architecture and data
transfer links with a capacity that far exceeds current state-of-the-art
To solve this unprecedented challenge, ASTRON and IBM scientists in the
Netherlands and Switzerland have launched an initial five-year
collaboration called DOME, named for the protective cover on telescopes and
the famous Swiss mountain.
DOME will investigate emerging technologies for large-scale and efficient
exascale computing, data transport and storage processes, and streaming
analytics that will be required to read, store and analyze all the raw data
that will be collected daily.* Scientists from both organizations will
collaborate at the newly established ASTRON & IBM Center for Exascale
Technology in Drenthe, the Netherlands.
Ton Engbersen, IBM Research – Zurich explains, “If you take the current
global daily Internet traffic and multiply it by two**, you are in the
range of the data set that the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope will
be collecting every day. This is Big Data Analytics to the extreme. With
DOME we will embark on one of the most dataintensive science projects ever
planned, which will eventually have much broader applications beyond radio
Only by basing the overall design on architectures that are beyond the
current stateof- the-art will it be possible to handle the vast amounts of
data produced by the millions of antenna systems of the SKA. Specifically,
scientists at ASTRON and IBM will investigate advanced accelerators and 3D
stacked chips for more energy-efficient computing. They will also research
novel optical interconnect technologies and nanophotonics to optimize large
data transfers, as well as high-performance storage systems based on
next-generation tape systems and novel phase-change memory technologies.
“Large research infrastructures like the SKA require extremely powerful
computer systems to process all the data. 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,” said Marco de Vos, Managing Director of ASTRON.
To help determine a fundamental design based on realistic parameters,
scientists will use advanced and proven methodologies developed by IBM
Research – Zurich to model and optimize the architectures of large-scale
infrastructures. The basis for this optimization will be an analysis of the
existing system for the low-frequency array (LOFAR), designed and built by
ASTRON. LOFAR also serves as a so-called “pathfinder telescope” for the
larger SKA because it demonstrates pivotal SKA technology. The DOME
collaboration is realized with financial support of the Province of
Drenthe, the Netherlands and from the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs,
Agriculture and Innovation (EL&I).
Introducing the SKA
A global community of astronomers from more than 20 countries is setting
out to build the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the world’s largest radio
telescope. This extremely powerful survey telescope will have millions of
antennas to collect radio signals, forming a collection area equivalent to
one square kilometre but spanning a huge surface area—over 3000 km wide or
approximately the width of the continental United States. The SKA will be
50 times more sensitive than any former radio device and more than 10,000
times faster than today’s instruments.
The SKA is expected to produce a few Exabytes of data per day for a single
beam per one square kilometer. After processing this data the expectation
is that per year between 300 and 1500 Petabytes of data need to be stored.
In comparison, the approximately 15 Petabytes*** produced by the large
hadron collider at CERN per year of operation is approximately 10 to 100
times less than the envisioned capacity of SKA.
A History of Collaboration
IBM has collaborated previously with ASTRON on the design, engineering and
manufacturing of customized, high-performance, low-power analogue and mixed
signal processing chips for a SKA prototype system. Furthermore, the two
organizations worked together on implementing IBM’s Blue Gene®
supercomputer, currently being used to gather and analyze information from
ASTRON’s lowfrequency array (LOFAR) “software telescope” network located in
the northern region of the Netherlands.
Plans for the location of the SKA are still to be finalized, with a
decision expected in 2012. Australia and South Africa are the two remaining
options, where it would be possible to install the millions of antennas
required for receiving the very weak signals from the universe.
* To put in perspective the one exabyte that the SKA is expected to
generate daily: approx. 18 exabytes represents the limit of what is
addressable with today’s 64-bit computer architectures (it is exactly
18.4467441 × 10E19)
** Based on 19,707 petabytes per month (2011),
ASTRON is the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy. Its mission is to
make discoveries in radio astronomy happen, via the development of novel
and innovative technologies, the operation of world-class radio astronomy
facilities, and the pursuit of fundamental astronomical research. See also:
For more information visit www.research.ibm.com