ASTRON & IBM Center for Exascale Technology

Newsletter 3

Dear reader,

In recognition of four new SME’s and knowledge institutes joining the Dome Users Platform in January, this newsletter will focus on these new partners, their interests, and our collaboration. But before zooming-in, we will give you a brief update on the Dome project and SKA developments.

Dome research is progressing well. After two years of hard work, models have been developed aiding power-efficient design of processing and storage systems. New low-power photonic connections have been tested, a microserver board has seen “first light”, and currently radio frequency signal transmissions over fibre are being tested, to name but a few.

Furthermore, the LOFAR retrospective analysis (an initial “learning study” to find out whether the LOFAR designs were optimal) was extended and applied to the three telescope concepts which are part of the first phase of the SKA. Indeed, this analysis formed valuable input to several SKA consortia. For achieving efficient storage of the massive amounts of data which are expected in the future, an automated calculation tool has been developed, taking into account several parameters such as access pattern, cost of storage tiers (for SSD, HDD, tape) and required response time. In essence, the Dome teams are at full strength now and the two remaining workstreams have started as well: Compressed sensing/novel algorithms and Real-time communications.

After having signed collaboration agreements earlier this year, ten SKA consortia have started designing the different elements of SKA-phase one. These activities are leading up to the Critical Design Review, scheduled for the end of the preconstruction phase in 2016. The Dome teams supported by the Users Platform members are participating in most of the consortia, ensuring that the Dome R&D is fed into the designs. The more long-term research oriented activities in Dome will be inserted in the SKA consortia work via tasks concerned with scalability towards SKA phase two.

The SKA Office, in collaboration with the consortia, has fixed an initial set of SKA phase-one requirements, now available at the SKA website. This forms the basis of the current designs. As the current estimated cost of the telescope exceeds the cost cap, a re-scope may be conducted early next year at the latest. The SKA organization is further preparing for the next phases of the project, including the future governance structure. More news and details can be found on the SKA web pages, including an announcement of the UK Government intending to provide £100 M of additional funding.

Back in the Netherlands, NWO is in the process of granting several new ICT projects in relation to the Big Bang Big Data call. These projects will be conducted by various universities, in close collaboration with the Dome teams. The winning proposals will be announced in the coming weeks. More on this in our next newsletter.


Albert-Jan Boonstra and Ton Engbersen

Scientific Directors Dome for ASTRON and IBM



Four new partners join ultimate Big Bang, Big Data challenge

Putting scientific and technological breakthroughs to the test


On 15 January 2014, four companies and knowledge institutes have joined the Dome Users Platform. Any new insights, technologies and applications arising from Dome-related research are being shared with the Dome Users Platform, as the project continues. Various SME’s and knowledge institutes stand to benefit.



Photo: signing of the agreements. From left to right: Kjeld van der Schaaf (KxA Software Innovations), Haije Wind (CIT, University of Groningen), René van Schaik (Netherlands eScience Centre), Peter de Ruiter (Transfer DSW), Alexander Brink (IBM), and Marco de Vos (ASTRON).


New partners

The four parties that have recently seized this unique opportunity by signing an official collaboration agreement are: KxA Software Innovations (previously known as Dysi), the Netherlands eScience Centre, the University of Groningen’s Centre for Information Technology and Transfer DSW. In December 2012, SKA South Africa, a unit of the National Research Foundation, had already become a platform partner in DOME.


Societal value

This is what Dome is all about: handling big data in a way that is reliable, accessible and eco-friendly. Indeed, much the same way we would like to see data handled in domains like healthcare, traffic control, police work, water management, finance, education, social media and many more. In fact, Dome-related research could have a tangible impact on many of the areas in which we are active as groups or as individuals. By joining the Dome Users Platform, these four new partners are bringing us another step closer.



Logo eScience Center

eScience Center: “We love unexpected cross links”


One of the four new members of the Dome Users Platform is the Netherlands eScience Center. We asked their CEO a.i., René van Schaik, what the main reasons are for his organization taking an active part in project Dome.


Rene van Schaik

René van Schaik Ph.D, CEO a.i. at the Netherlands eScience Center


“eScience stands for enhanced science”, René van Schaik explains. “By definition, it requires the implementation of innovative and sophisticated computer technology to enable data-driven and compute-intensive research. Our mission is to enable scientific breakthroughs via collaborations with scientific research groups. We bridge the gap between scientific domains and academic and commercial research. This is why we will always co-operate with a wide range of partners, each of them with their own specific knowledge base.”


“We look at the field of astronomy as being a pathfinder in the domain of eScience. Astronomers have been dealing with the challenges of big data longer than almost any discipline and long before the term entered the common lexicon. This initiative is crucial to us as SKA is expected to be a major driving force for developments in the field of eScience. Just like the CERN large hadron collider and LOFAR, we expect the SKA to raise new e-Infrastructure questions and generate all kinds of interesting technologies and knowledge.”


“As a broadly oriented eScience center, our main objective in joining the Dome Users Platform is to apply insights arising from Dome research projects to other domains and vice versa. We will look to apply methods developed in this project in many domains where large sets of sensory data are present. Just think of water management, life sciences, climate modelling and social sciences.”


“Rob van Nieuwpoort, our director of eScience technology, spends one day a week at ASTRON in Dwingeloo. That’s where the domain expertise is, that’s where he can get a good view of the actual questions at hand. We want to deliver technology that solves actual problems. In the search for pulsars, for instance, we have been contributing to the essential development of a very fast filter to remove radio frequency interference. The extensive code optimization techniques developed while working on the Pulsar pipeline are now also being applied to climate and water management projects. On the other hand, visualization technology developed for climate research has also helped in the evaluation of the performance of the radio frequency interference filter. We highly value these links. Apart from that, the Users Platform is a great opportunity for us to meet new players in the international SKA context. So there are both scientific and economic advantages to joining this platform.”



CIT, University of Groningen: “Astronomers are in the forefront of applying IT innovations”

The University of Groningen’s Centre for Information Technology (CIT) is happy to join the Dome Users Platform. Haije Wind, the centre’s CTO, explains why he welcomes the SKA’s seemingly impossible demands.


Haije Wind

Haije Wind, CTO at the University of Groningen’s Centre for Information Technology


“The CIT, which has been around for half a century, has various tasks within the university and beyond”, says Haije Wind. “We’ve been involved in projects such as LOFAR (the low-frequency radio telescope array in Drenthe), Lifelines GCC (a transgenerational DNA database), CMI-NEN (which is about medical imaging) and many more. CIT has also developed and built iScope, the world’s biggest touchscreen. In general, our external projects revolve around research support and innovation, with a strong focus on data and compute speed.”


“Highly challenging scenarios, like the SKA’s, are a driver for scientific breakthroughs. This is why astronomers are in the forefront of applying IT innovations. The SKA will generate such an extraordinary amount of data, that it poses seemingly impossible demands. This is exactly why we are very happy to be on board with the Dome Users Platform. It is all about developing and applying the latest IT techniques to a wide range of research areas.”


“Because of the volume of data the SKA will generate, it will have to be green in order to make it affordable. There are many approaches to cutting down on energy use, some of which are now being researched within Dome. One aspect is the way we store data. We’ll probably be moving from one-system storage to more object-oriented storage, where smaller pieces of information are directed to various storage media.”


“Of course, it would be wonderful if the Dome Users Platform allows us to create new IT building blocks that we could use for our customers. But on a scientific level, the biggest reward would be if CIT can contribute to the SKA design by injecting our knowledge of algorithms and smart grids. I’d be very happy.”


Logo Transfer DSW

Transfer DSW: “Microservers are not just for supercomputers”

Transfer DSW is one of the four new Users Platform members. The engineering company has great expertise when it comes to hardware design, specifically PCB’s: printed circuit boards which you will find in most electronic devices. What is their connection to Dome and why is the Users Platform of strategic interest?


Peter de Ruiter

Peter de Ruiter, owner and CEO at Transfer DSW


“Transfer started out as a company that distributes software for designing PCB’s”, says Peter de Ruiter. “ASTRON has been a client for about 20 years. In 2009, we started DsignWorx. Now that we are part of the Transfer group, we can do more than just deliver the software. We can also design electronics and build our own prototypes.”


“Since mid 2012, we’ve been involved in Dome. In research into microservers, to be precise. We’ve already been able to implement a high-speed processor on a very small-sized board. And I must say, IBM is very strict when it comes to size. Fitting everything onto this very thin, densely packed PCB proved to be very demanding. And when we asked for an extra 5 mm, IBM refused. That was challenging! But we’ve managed to find a way.”


“Microservers are a hot item in terms of developing future supercomputers. However, they are not exclusive to the domain of big data. On a more modest scale, they will definitely lead to great innovations as well. Not everybody needs a supercomputer. But everybody will soon demand much more, even from simple electronic devices at home or at work. Think high speed, low energy, smart memory.”


“The Dome Users Platform represents a chance to exchange valuable knowledge. What we bring to the table is expert knowledge of hardware and what we’ve learned about integrating microservers so far. What we stand to gain is knowledge of the other research that is being done within Dome, and of big data in general. This will be new to us, outside our primary field. My hope is that we can put our combined knowledge build-up into optimizing the technologies at hand. For an SME such as Transfer DSW, 2024 seems like the distant future. But we are more than happy to join the Dome team on that journey.”

Logo KxA

KxA Software Innovations: “High-performance big data management is what we do for a living”

If Dome is about managing big data, then KxA is about Dome. At the very least, there is a lot of common ground between the two when it comes to key areas of interest. No surprise then, that KxA has also joined the Dome Users Platform. Founder and director Kjeld van der Schaaf sheds some light on the matter.


Kjeld van der Schaaf

Kjeld van der Schaaf MSc, owner and CTO at KxA Software Innovations


Kjeld van der Schaaf and ASTRON go back a few years. “The concept of LOFAR, ASTRON’s low-frequency array, came up in the seventies. In those days, it was technically impossible to build. Towards the end of the last century, the idea was back on the table. With better perspectives, this time: in about 8 years’ time, we thought it should be possible to realize and run LOFAR. I came to work for ASTRON in 1998, just the right time! From 2000 onwards, I was working on the LOFAR architecture as a system engineering manager. That’s more about technology than it is about astronomy.”


“Towards the end of the LOFAR project, we tried to raise interest among major companies to design software for all the processing LOFAR needed. They weren’t willing to rise to the challenge. Having learned a lot during the preparation work, we decided to start our own company so we could get the job done ourselves. Not only for LOFAR, but also for other projects. The Dutch national road traffic database, for instance. They have 25,000 locations for measurements and about 100 terabytes of data, growing daily. It is all on one server, which has to be extremely small and extremely fast.”


“Another great example is Sensor City Assen, a mobility project to gain insight into traffic in and around the city of Assen. Cameras, traffic light counters, Bluetooth connections, TomTom data linking with individual cars to determine entry point and destination. It is a very diverse data mix, with loads of complicating factors. Correcting for cameras running off, to name just one. In short: high-performance big data management is what we do for a living.”


“The nplex software platform our company  developed, is essentially about handling and analyzing very large amounts of data and translating them into concrete results very quickly. This is why we have great strategic interest in being at the frontlines of technological development. Within the Dome Users Platform, we hope to be able to put new concepts to the test in real-life projects.”


January 2014: SKA industry day

On Thursday, January 16th 2014, the 4th Dutch SKA Industry Day was held at ASTRON in Dwingeloo. Suppliers, manufacturers and both present and potential partners gathered to hear about recent SKA developments and about possible commercial opportunities.


Albert-Jan Boonstra, scientific director Dome for ASTRON, was one of the speakers during the SKA Industry Day. Please click here to see his presentation.




DOME interim report

Just published: Dome interim report, aimed at government officials and anyone who would like a summarized status update on the complete project. This report is in Dutch.



Upcoming events spring – summer 2014

April 28th – May 2nd
SKA CSP consortium 2nd technical interchange meeting, Penticton, Canada
June PCB design approaches & matchmating, Dome Users Platform events, Drenthe
July 2nd Challenges in data-intensive modern astronomy,
Dutch astronomers’ meeting, Groningen
July 7th – 11th SKA CSP consortium 3rd technical interchange meeting, Florence, Italy
September 16th – 18th Dome face-to-face meeting, IBM-ZRL, Zurich