The computers that will help scientists step closer to the Big Bang

IBM has shown off some of the novel computer systems that could help the world's largest radio telescope to peer 13 billion years back in time.

In the course of a day the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is expected to gather more data than passes across the internet.

The SKA will be an array of 3,000 radio telescopes that will gather cosmic emissions in an attempt to see the universe a few hundred of million years after the Big Bang - farther back in time than any telescope has glimpsed.

Handling the 14 exabytes of data that will be gathered by the dishes in South Africa and Australia will require processing power equal to several million of today's fastest computers.

A high-performance computing architecture with data transfer links that far exceed current state-of-the-art technology must be developed to gather, store and analyse the 13 billion year old data.

To meet this computing challenge IBM and its partners at ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, are coming up with some novel machines, including what they claim is the world's first water-cooled, 64-bit microserver.

The prototype microserver, on show at the CeBIT technology fair in Hannover in Germany, is roughly the size of a smartphone, between four and 10 times smaller than traditional rack mounted servers.

Microserver prototype specs
  • Size: 133 × 55 mm2
  • System on a chip: Zurich T4240 chip from Freescale Semiconductor based on the Power Architecture
  • Software: Linux Fedora operating system and IBM DB2 database

Not only is the microserver compact, able to be packed as tightly as DIMM memory, it is also very energy-efficient. The system uses hotwater cooling, where heat is drawn away by water piped to a copper plate coupled to the server's system on a chip. This plate also delivers electrical power to the chip. The gallery below showcases some of the elements.

The water-based system is able to keep the processor below 85 degrees C and is based on the same technology IBM developed for the SuperMUC supercomputer located outside of Munich, Germany.

Currently each microserver needs about 60W of power to operate and keep cool but IBM hope to reduce this to between 35W and 40W.

Images: IBM Research

The researchers are planning to pack 128 of the microserver boards, using the newest T4240 chips, into a 2U rack unit with 1536 cores and 3072 threads, with up to 6TB of DRAM.

The microservers have been developed under a €35.9m project called Dome, which is run by IBM and Astron to try to solve the exascale computing challenges posed by the SKA.

When it goes live in 2024, the SKA will be the world's most sensitive radio telescope, collecting a deluge of radio signals from deep space and storing one petabyte of data each day.

"With the SKA we will be able to fill big gaps in our knowledge of the universe," says Albert-Jan Boonstra, the scientific director of ASTRON."We'll be able to map the so-called 'dark ages,' the epoch of reionization, when the stars and galaxies formed."

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