Posted by: Chris | 12/11/2012

The Universe is Now Our Lab

A few weeks ago I had the privilege to attend and speak at the opening ceremony of the ASTRON and IBM Center of Exascale Technology in Dwingeloo, the Netherlands. The Center is part of a joint research project, called DOME, to address the computing needs for the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), a huge distributed radio telescope to start operation in 2019. The SKA will explore the origins of our universe, trying to understand what happened at the Big Bang and immediately afterwards.

DOME team

The DOME scientists from IBM and ASTRON

When the SKA starts acquiring data in its fully deployed state in 2024 it will produce more than twice the current global internet traffic. To process this data a computer system 1000 times more powerful than the recently inaugurated SuperMUC will be required. Even with water-cooling SuperMUC still uses a significant amount of power.

So for the SKA a lot of new invention is still required to fit its computing needs into a reasonable energy budget.

Scientists at ASTRON and IBM have a number of ideas how we would want to deal with these challenges, most important is probably the 3D integration of chips, use of low power micro servers and new storage class memory – based on Phase Change Materials –  replacing disk drives.

Perhaps the most exciting piece for me is the 3D integration of chips. Current computer systems are laid out like sprawling suburbs made up of homes only one story high. As travel between these homes covers great distances, it also requires a lot of energy in the form of gasoline. In a computer the situation is similar, moving data between memory and CPU is what now takes the most energy because of the distance the data needs to travel. If we were able to stack the memory on top of the CPU – like in a high-rise building – the data would not need to travel as far and consequently the energy consumption would shrink significantly.

Incidentally our brain is constructed in a 3D fashion as well – it runs on 20 Watts of power. So once we’re able to put layers and layers of silicon on top of each other with efficient and effective liquid cooling between the layers, we’ll get closer to the biological efficiency of our brains.

So clearly with the DOME project we get to explore new limits of computing and as important learn more about the origins of our universe once the SKA gets deployed. Where so far our motto in Research has been the World is our Lab, now the Universe has become our Lab.

Side note: We are hiring for DOME.  Find out more.



  1. […] Institute for Radio Astronomy, have assembled what some call a dream team of scientists to create a next-generation computing system capable of handling the ultimate big data challenge. Our project, called DOME, is a system for […]

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