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Exclusive: SKA bid looks to SkyNet for computing

Terminating the data centre one desktop at a time

Image: Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Image: Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Key players behind the Australian-New Zealand joint bid to host the $2.1 billion Square Kilometre Array radio telescope will launch a grid Cloud computing initiative by September with the aim of potentially harvesting the computing and storage power of desktops worldwide.

The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), along with iVEC, the company running the $80 million high performance computing Pawsey Centre at CSIRO in Western Australia, are set to launch a “citizen science” application this year based on the open source Nereus V Cloud computing technology developed at Oxford University. The application, dubbed “theskynet” by Australian researchers, would grant anyone not affiliated with the global telescope project access to the datasets formed out of the array’s work.

It could effectively become a wider desktop-based Cloud initiative, according to two Oxford University researchers who undertook a three-month research project (PDF) earlier this year to explore Cloud computing options as an alternative to the exaflop-capable supercomputer believed to be required by 2020 to crunch through the data output by the final telescope array.

Once complete in mid-2013, the Pawsey Centre being constructed as part of the telescope array bid would be capable of petaflop computing, making it the third fastest supercomputer in the world based on the most recent listings in November 2010.

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 ten petabytes of data in images for storage.

Data would be transferred over some of the fibre rolled out by Nextgen networks as part of the Federal Government’s $250 million Regional Broadband Blackspot Program.

However, the researchers claimed that even with such a computer, the resultant data would be impractical to store. Use of multi-tenanted public Cloud computing offerings like Amazon Web Service’s EC2 storage platform for the SKA’s effort would cost approximately $US455,000 per year ($AU427,125 at time of writing) to operate.

Instead, the researchers prototyped a Nereus V testbed using 200 clients at the University of Western Australia, Curtin University and iVEC with two servers deployed through management at a NereusCloud domain. The clients used for processing included Mac Minis and some Linux-based desktop PCs with at least two gigabytes of memory.

The Oxford-developed Nereus was chosen over grid computing alternative BOINC, which already harnesses five petaflops of data through similar computing projects, due to the former’s Java base and greater security.

The researchers recommended widespread use of the computing grid across university campuses to take advantage of the powerful computers and high-bandwidth fibre already available there. However, director of the Australia-New Zealand SKA project, Peter Quinn, said that the research institutes involved would receive greater use of the data by expanding it beyond campuses to citizen scientists otherwise not involved in the project.

“We’re keen to expose the datasets to the public,” he said. “You get a multiplication of the science utilisation and science return on this data.”

Quinn’s desire to see the citizen science project going is linked to his push to revive the lapsed Virtual Observatory project in Australia and globally. The international initiative would use similar technologies to provide a central registry of disaggregated datasets from global telescopes, including those not within the Square Kilometre Array, for free access to scientists. Though Australia intermittently contributed to the project’s international alliance since 2005, its contribution has since lapsed.

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1 Comment

Pete Wheeler


The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) would like to make it clear that it does not see cloud computing as an all encompassing solution to the data challenge posed by the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), but instead an avenue for exploration that we hope will provide solutions to parts of this problem and compliment others. Our view is that the bulk of the data processing required by the SKA will likely be carried out by dedicated super computers supported by a sophisticated network infrastructure covering a whole continent.

iVEC is an important and growing supercomputing hub for Western Australia. ICRAR works very closely with iVEC, but the citizen science project discussed here is not being developed in collaboration with iVEC. IN actual fact it is a collaboration of ICRAR (a joint venture of Curtin University and The University of Western Australia) and UK-based eMedia Track, with support from Western Australia’s Department of Commerce and Perth based IT company Systemic.

Launching this September, theSkyNet aims to increase public awareness and participation in radio astronomy, with a strong content focus for projects like the Australian SKA Pathfinder, the Murchison Widefield Array and of course the Square Kilometre Array.

This initiative is inspired by a raft of similar projects that have sprung up in recent years, including SETI@ home, Galaxy Zoo, Solar Storm Watch and several others. By making science accessible to people with an interest in science, these sites have benefited from resources that would have been impossible to fund using conventional mechanisms.

theSkyNet will allow the community to participate in the science of radio astronomy via the donation of computing power not already being used by their desktop computers. theSkyNet will process data from a range of sources and enable radio astronomers to perform science that would otherwise not be possible due to the high demand for resources in this data intensive realm of science.

- For more on theSkyNet please visit closer to the launch date.
- For more on ICRAR’s ICT programs and plans please visit
- To keep up to date with ICRAR programs please visit and sign up to our eNewsletter.
- To contact us please email

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