Square Kilometre Array (SKA) South Africa, a business unit of the country’s National Research Foundation, is joining the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy Astron and IBM in a four-year collaboration to research extremely fast, but low-power exascale computer systems. 

The new systems are aimed at developing advanced technologies for handling the massive amount of data that will be produced by the SKA, which is one of the most ambitious science projects ever undertaken.
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.
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, which IBM calls the era of cognitive systems.
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.
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,” says Simon Ratcliffe, technical co-ordinator at Dome-South Africa.
Scientists from all three organisations will collaborate remotely and at the newly established Astron and IBM Center for Exascale Technology in Drenthe, the Netherlands.
More specifically, scientists from SKA South Africa will focus on the following research themes:
* 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;
* Desert-proof technology – the Dome team is researching and prototyping micro-server architectures based on liquid-cooled 3D stacked chips. The team in South Africa will extend this research to make the micro-severs rugged or “desert-proof” to handle the extreme environmental conditions where the SKA will be located; and
* 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,” says Dr Ton Engbersen, Dome project leader, IBM Research.
“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,” says 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.