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11 July 2011

Hi-tech backing for SA's SKA bid


Commissioning scientists Nadeem Ozeer, Maik Wolleben and Siphelele Blose in the MeerKAT control room at the Cape Town-based MeerKAT engineering office (Photo: SKA South Africa)

South Africa's Centre for High Performance Computing is upgrading its capacity in computational power in support of the country's bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

This follows the recent agreement between Intel South Africa Corporation and the SKA South Africa Project to partner in evaluating the highest Intel technologies in processing the enormous data rates produced by radio telescopes.

South Africa, allied with eight other African countries, is competing against Australia (allied with New Zealand) to host the €1.5-billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an instrument 50-100 times more sensitive and 10 000 times faster than any radio imaging telescope yet built.

The international science funding agencies and governments involved in the international SKA consortium are due to announce the winning bidder in 2012, with construction likely to start in 2016 and take place in phases over several years, with completion by about 2022.

Supercomputing centre for scientists

The Centre for High Performance Computing, which falls under the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), has been established over the last few years as a supercomputing centre serving South Africa's scientists.

Backed by the Department of Science and Technology, the state-of-the-art facility is supported by the latest in data centre power and network infrastructure, and operates a number of supercomputers with different architectures.

These include a Blue Gene/P machine, a Sun Hybrid cluster and SMP systems, and a GPU-based cluster.

The centre also supports a number of research labs on its premises, notably the ACE Lab, which is developing new computing hardware and software. The centre is also spearheading an initiative to establish a very large data storage capability for the country's scientists.

MeerKAT radio telescope

SKA South Africa is currently building the KAT-7/MeerKAT radio telescope, a SKA precursor, in the rapidly developing Karoo Astronomy Reserve.

"It is no accident that the MeerKAT engineering offices and control centre, and the Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC), are situated only a few kilometers from each other and are currently being linked together into the new South African Research Network (SANReN), providing superfast computer networks for research," SKA South Africa said in a recent statement.

"Now that the MeerKAT team has the KAT-7 telescope operational in the Karoo, and a 10 Gbps (in the first phase) data link coming online in July from the Karoo into the CHPC, these two initiatives will link up to process the large data volumes in novel ways which may open up new scientific areas of investigation.

"For example, a joint pilot project to capture and process a large amount of telescope 'voltage data' is planned for later this year."

Intel, SKA South Africa partnership

Further supporting these kinds of efforts, Intel South Africa and SKA South Africa recently agreed to partner in evaluating the highest Intel technologies in processing the enormous data rates produced by radio telescopes.

"The parties entered into an agreement to make these technologies available to the SKA SA and put forth a joint engineering effort to further test and optimize them," SKA South Africa said.

"This collaboration in applying cutting-edge technology to raw data capture and online stream processing pushes the envelope of what is possible today in scientific instruments, and puts South African scientists and engineers at the forefront of the field.

"The completion of the Center of Competence within the CHPC, that aims at providing a platform to transfer the technology developed for SKA, such as the ROACH (reconfigurable open architecture computing hardware) board, for adoption by the broader scientific community outside astronomy, is just one of the strengths of South Africa's ability to deliver on major projects."

SAinfo reporter