SKA telescope to generate more data than entire Internet in 2020

An exaflop-capable supercomputer, storage of at least 1.5 petabytes and data centres around the world will be required say scientists

The forthcoming $2.1 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope could generate more data per day than the entire internet when it comes online in 2020, according to the director of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), Professor Peter Quinn.

SKA — which Australia with New Zealand and South Africa are competing to host, and which will help the search for Earth-like planets, alien life forms, dark matter and black holes — will be 10,000 times more powerful than any telescope currently used, with much of that capability to come from software and ICT design.

Speaking to Computerworld Australia , Quinn said high-end supercomputers and networking would be essential to the success of the project. In fact, Oxford University research (PDF), an exaflop-capable supercomputer would likely be required to crunch through the data generated by the final telescope array.

“This is a software and IT telescope in many senses because of the data challenges due to the amount it will generate, the amount of information that it passes and is going to process," Quinn said.

"This telescope will generate the same amount of data in a day as the entire planet does in a year. We estimate that there will be more data flowing inside the telescope network than the entire internet in 2020."

Because of the amount of data that is set to be generated, a number of data centres will be constructed around the world. According to Quinn, the principal storage site will be based in Perth, WA, at the Pawsey Centre for High Performance Computing which is due for completion in mid-2013, with secondary data centres handling less data volumes based in North America, Asia and Europe.

The first two stages of the Pawsey Centre, which include a HP POD modular data centre and a second, GPU-based processing centre, would be capable of computing power in excess of 200 teraflops and storage of about 1.5 petabytes. The project is expected to deliver up to an exabyte a day of raw data, compressed to some 10 petabytes of data in images for storage.

Professor Quinn added that the "extraction of knowledge" from data would be a major outcome of the SKA project.

"At the moment we have a world full of data so how do we get knowledge from that data? I expect SKA will make great progress in helping to automatically determine and find important knowledge in the universe," Quinn said.

anzSKA project director, Professor Brian Boyle, agreed with Quinn's assessment of knowledge gained from the data and said that the scientific community also wanted to find out the origin and nature of dark matter and energy which comprises approximately 96 per cent of the universe.

He did not rule out the possibility that the telescope may prove that the paradigm of the universe researchers hold now could be wrong.

"What’s really exciting is the unknowns that the SKA will discover,” Boyle said. “If we could predict what it was going to discover we weren’t being ambitious enough and I think it is going to revolutionise our understanding of the universe.”

According to ICRAR’s Quinn, a number of IT vendors who specialise in high performance computing and storage including IBM, Cisco and Intel have offered to provide equipment and knowledge regardless of which country is successful with the bid.

"They [vendors] are interested not just in terms of providing equipment but also working with researchers in the next four years to develop the designs of the SKA systems,” Quinn said.

“Those companies know that this will drive their own agendas because in 2020 when the SKA is operating, it will be the world’s largest computer system in operation.”

This meant the IT industry was going to play an "incredibly important role" in the design, construction and the development of the radio telescope.

While many astronomers were keen to start using SKA, the most famous space research organisation of them all, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), was watching the A/NZ bid with keen interest due to NASA's ongoing research into deep space communication networks, Boyle said.

It was envisaged NASA may use SKA as a deep space listening probe and given Australia's radio telescope at Parkes Observatory in NSW was used to relay live television signals of man's first steps on the moon, during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, there was the possibility NASA could call on its services again.

"Australia covered the moon landing [in 1969] so it’s possible we might cover the Mars landing in 2050. We can make The Dish [a movie about the events at Parkes Observatory] part two in years to come,” he joked.

A decision on host country will be made in February 2012 following final submissions by each country on 15 September.

Follow Hamish Barwick on Twitter: @HamishBarwick

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

Tags Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope

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