IBM to build low-power, exascale computer for largest-ever radio telescope

By on April 2, 2012, 6:30 PM

For the next five years, IBM will be working with the Netherland's National Institute of Radio Astronomy (ASTRON) in hopes of developing a low-powered, exascale supercomputer. According to IBM, such a computer would be millions of times faster than today's high-end desktop PCs and possibly thousands of times faster than even the most recent super computers. The computer will be used to analyze data collected by SKA (square-kilometer array), a cutting-edge radio telescope which will become the largest and most sensitive of its kind ever built. ASTRON plans to have the telescope ready by 2024.

Exascale refers to a computing device that is so incredibly fast, the number of floating-point operations per second it can perform is measured not in gigaflops or even petaflops, but exaflops. Today, even the highest-end desktop CPUs clock-in around 20 gigaflops. Even when you consider the current masters of parallel computing, GPUs, FLOPS of the peta-kind are still unheard of outside the realm of supercomputing.

This low-powered supercomputing cluster will be charged with the task of collecting, storing and analyzing exabytes worth of astronomical data on a daily basis. To put this into perspective, for each day it operates, the amount of data which will be collected is expected to exceed the sum of raw data transferred through the entire Internet, globally. In fact, under ideal conditions, it may be more than twice as much.

To maintain a combination of high performance and low power, IBM will be investigating a number of its own experimental technologies, including 3D stacked circuits and novel optical transfer technologies.

A few interesting facts:

  • SKA will need to store up to 1,500 petabytes of data per year.
  • The computer will need to manipulate  bewteen 1 to 3 exabytes of data per day.
  • 64-bit architecture currently has an address limit of 18 exabytes.
  • SKA will survey over 3000km of sky at a time, nearly the width of the continental U.S.

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