Continent-spanning telescope spurs unprecedented exascale computer

By 2024, the largest radio telescope ever will dot the landscape of either Australia or South Africa with thousands of antennae spread out over 2,000 miles. The Square Kilometre Array will record the equivalent of an Internet's worth of data twice a day, and IBM is building a computer that can handle it all.

With a total signal collection area of one square kilometer, Square Kilometre Array (or SKA) will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope ever constructed by a factor of 50. It'll be able to spot smaller, dimmer, and farther away objects than ever before, which means it'll be able to look farther back in time than ever before. SKA will see if pulsars can be used to measure gravity waves to test the theory of general relativity, it will map a billion galaxies all the way out to the edge of the known universe, it'll fill in the gaps in the cosmic timeline between 300,000 and a billion years after the Big Bang, and yes, it'll listen for signals from extraterrestrials, too.

A telescope of this size generates an amount of data that's nearly impossible for our tiny human minds to comprehend. At full tilt, SKA will be producing about one exabyte of data per day. That's the equivalent of 15 million 64 gig iPods, or twice the global daily Internet traffic. Really, this is more data than we can usefully picture, but IBM has been tasked with coming up with a system to handle it all, both in terms of storage and analysis.

IBM scientists in the Netherlands and Switzerland have launched a collaboration called DOME, which will "investigate emerging technologies for large-scale and efficient exascale computing, data transport and storage processes, and streaming analytics."

IBM suggests a couple directions that it's exploring, most of which we've gotten hints about before. For example, it's looking at new 3D chip architectures and optical interconnects, which should dramatically increase efficiency since 98% of the energy used by computers goes to just moving data around as opposed to crunching numbers. Also on the table is phase change memory, which will increase data access speeds by a factor of 100. The most surprising thing that IBM is planning, though, is a high-performance data storage system that uses (of all things) tape. Specifically, "next-generation tape systems," which it'd better be, 'cause tape storage was like the height of 1950s storage tech.

This initial five year, $43 million project will hopefully lead to an actual exascale computer within the next ten years (in time for the activation of SKA), and even if you're not excited about radio astronomy, the trickle-down effect should mean that the rest of us might get a crack and 3D chips and phase change memory in consumer computers a few years earlier than we would otherwise.

IBM, via Wired

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