IBM to build exascale supercomputer for the world’s largest, million-antennae telescope (Video)
IBM and ASTRON, the Netherlands Foundation for Research in Astronomy, have announced that they have begun work on building an exascale supercomputer that will collect data from the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a 3,000km-wide telescope that will have millions of antennae. The current world’s fastest supercomputer, the K, has 700,000 processor cores and a peak performance of 10 petaflops — an exascale (exaflop) computer would be 100 times faster than that.
IBM and ASTRON have until 2024 to develop a computer that can process a few exabytes of data per day. To put this into perspective, the web’s daily traffic — i.e. two billion people surfing the web — currently adds up to about half an exabyte. An exabyte is one million terabytes; a billion gigabytes. According to the press release, IBM and Astron will be chasing exascale computing through technologies such as phase-change memory and photonics, and chip stacking, but in all likelihood it will also follow DARPA’s lead and look at near threshold voltage and hetereogeneous computing.
After processing, the SKA’s exascale computers will store between 300 and 1,500 petabytes per year. In comparison, the Large Hadron Collider, the largest science experiment in the world, stores “just” 15 petabytes per year. IBM last year announced that it was working on a 120-petabyte storage array, but 1,500PB is obviously a little bit larger than that. Curiously, the press release mentions “next-generation tape systems” as one of the storage methods — it’s a little known fact that tape storage density is still far superior to hard drives, and IBM is the market leader in tape storage.
As for SKA itself, it is a radio telescope that will have “millions of antennae” (with a total surface area of one square kilometer) spaced out over 3,000 kilometers (1860 miles), either in South Africa or Australia (the final decision will be made soon). This will make the SKA 50 times more sensitive than existing telescopes, and apparently “10,000 times faster.” All of that sensitivity and speed requires a beefy supercomputer to do all of the processing, which is why IBM is involved.
Connecting the millions of antennae to the supercomputer, of course, will be the mother of all fiber optic networks. According to IBM, more than 80,000km of fiber will be used — 50,000 miles; enough to wrap around the Earth twice. As we previously mentioned, the internet carries about half an exabyte of data per day — and this fiber network will have to carry a few exabytes per day. In short, IBM will have to build its very own, 3,000km-wide high-speed internet — all in the name of science.
The telescope, incidentally, will be used to study the origins of the universe, perform extreme tests on Einstein’s general relativity, investigate dark matter, and more.