Driven by the passion to push the limits of our knowledge of the universe, ASTRON constantly pushes the limits of technology. We strive to do the same in terms of sustainability.
We have a responsibility to the environment and climate; therefore, we have to look at managing big data in a more sustainable way. In developing the technological means to do so, we also contribute to making astronomy more sustainable.
Already we are doing a lot in terms of energy efficiency and sustainability. Our engineers and researchers are pushing the limits of technology every day, creating innovative, efficient hardware and software components, which are also very energy efficient.
Take our computing board UniBoard 2. It is designed to manage tremendous amounts of data very quickly, with only a limited amount of energy. A textbook example of efficient design.
Our LOFAR telescope, the largest radio telescope in the world, runs on a very efficient design. We have designed the LOFAR cabinets in the field, which house a lot of the hardware of the telescope, to be able to run at temperatures around 50 degrees Celsius. Most companies need to cool their hardware – like server rooms – down to around 20 degrees Celsius, which uses a lot of cooling energy. This is cooling energy that we do not need to apply.
We have also created a sleeping mode for our telescope, shutting down all non-essential systems when it is not in use, but able to start up within seconds, should the need arise; a clever piece of software design (you can imagine that creating a sleeping mode for the world's largest radio telescope is a lot more complicated than a sleeping mode for a laptop or desktop).
The LOFAR telescope itself is already very efficient and uses little energy, compared to other scientific instruments of this international scale, while having a high scientific output (a large number of scientific publications). The ILT (International LOFAR Telescope) consumes around 2,000 megawatt-hours per year, the equivalent of 800 households.
Currently, our engineers (together with the NLEsc) are developing a sensor, called the PowerSensor3, which can measure the energy usage of individual hardware components, for example a GPU. This improved power sensor can measure the energy utilization of the device with high accuracy at a very small time scale. Thus, allowing us at design time to have insight in the effects of implementation choices on the energy utilization of the final system. This technology is key in co-design for energy efficiency. Both the hardware and software are developed open source and will be made available to other parties as well. In this way, ASTRON can have a worldwide impact in the field of sustainability. A software library for power measurements (less accurate, but in many cases also effective) was already developed by our engineers and made available for open usage to others.
For the last couple of years, sustainability has become an integral part of our research proposals. When sending in proposals, sustainability has become a primary key performance indicator. Whereas in the past the primary goal was to ‘do as much science as possible’ with an investment, this has now shifted to ‘do as much science as possible while keeping the carbon footprint as low as possible.’
We have already done and are doing much in the field of sustainability, and we can do more. For example, we will try to further optimize the route travelled by the digitized collected data from our LOFAR radio telescope to the Science Data Centre (SDC), where it is stored. Currently, the data is stored intermediately at several places along the route. By optimizing those algorithms for real-time processing, we can process the data “in flight” without the need for intermediate storage. Reducing the amount of data movement back and forth to storage could reduce the energy usage significantly. These algorithms in turn would be openly available to anyone.
We are an institute that manages big astronomical data: the biggest data in science, because astronomy is one of the largest data generators of all the sciences. Big data has already become an integral part of society, which relies heavily on big data to function. And big data will only grow bigger: Gigabytes have already become Petabytes, and the growth of data sizes will only keep increasing. We are a front-runner when it comes down to managing big data and doing that efficiently.
In order to keep handling increasing sizes of data while reducing our relative energy usage, we are always coming up with new innovations and technologies. So we can continue to make discoveries in radio astronomy happen, in the most sustainable way.