Aerial view of the Square Kilometre Array core site. Picture: RUPERT SPANN
Aerial view of the Square Kilometre Array core site. Picture: RUPERT SPANN

SA has taken another major step towards being a world leader in big data analysis, with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Organisation joining forces with science juggernaut the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) last week.

On Thursday, the SKA radio telescope project — 70% of which will by hosted in the Northern Cape — signed an agreement with Cern’s European laboratory for particle physics on a collaboration in extreme-scale computing.

When it is complete‚ the SKA will produce about 3‚000 petabytes of data each year‚ more than 10 times what Cern has produced in the last seven years through its particle accelerator‚ the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

One petabyte is equivalent to 1-million gigabytes (GB) and the SKA will generate enough data to fill 4.5-million standard 4.7GB DVDs a day.

The agreement establishes a framework for collaborative projects that addresses joint challenges in approaching exascale computing (computing systems capable of at least one exaFLOPS, or a billion billion calculations per second) and data storage.

"The [signing] of this collaboration agreement between two of the largest producers of science data on the planet shows that we are really entering a new era of science worldwide‚" said SKA director-general Prof Philip Diamond. "Both Cern and SKA are and will be pushing the limits of what is possible technologically‚ and by working together and with industry‚ we are ensuring we are ready to make the most of this upcoming data and computing surge."

Head of astronomy at the University of Cape Town Prof Patrick Woudt said the value of the collaboration was building on shared expertise‚ and that a lot of strides have already been made locally to prepare for the data influx. "We’re [already] building data centre prototypes for SKA locally that can be scaled for full SKA numbers‚" said Woudt. "SA is also a strong player in Cern and there are large South African groups working on Cern. So bringing those two communities together in SA can only strengthen our position within these international projects."

Woudt believes there will also be positive spin-offs for local business‚ including small to medium enterprises‚ and that a number of new companies have already been formed in SA to deal with data science and analysis.

Prof Eckhard Elsen‚ the Cern director of research and computing‚ said that as the research centre’s demands increased, with a planned upgrade of the LHC‚ they wanted to expand the concept by using "common ideas and infrastructure" and that "SKA will be an ideal partner in this endeavour".

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