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

Exascale Technology



– 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

astronomy research.”


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), Internet_traffic








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:


About IBM:


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