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Aug 05, 2011

Technology giant to support South Africa’s radio telescope programme

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Global technology group Intel last week signed a memorandum of under- standing (MoU) with South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology and SKA South Africa to provide support for South Africa’s Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and MeerKAT radio telescope projects.

The SKA is a €1.5-billion international radio telescope project, and South Africa and Australia are the two countries short- listed to host it. MeerKAT is intended as a precursor to the SKA and, should South Africa be selected as the site for the SKA, would be incor- porated into the international instrument; if Australia is chosen, MeerKAT will operate in addition to the SKA.

The MoU covers the period 2011 to 2015 (when MeerKAT will be commissioned), but progress will be reviewed every six months. “We are offering hardware and performance tools, such as compilers – software, which will help their [SKA] software,” explains Intel corporate VP and Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) GM Christian Morales. “This is a leading-edge project – a world leading project. It’s always great to be in a project where there are problems to solve.

“The SKA needs one hundred times the level of performance that exists today in high performance computing,” he highlights. “SKA South Africa also wants an evolutionary architecture, better connectivity in a high-performance environment, better storage, more storage capacity and better security. “But most important is smart performance. “They want to process the data as fast as possible. That will accelerate research and allow astronomers to develop more rapid simulations.”

The specialised processing and analysis software that the MeerKAT and SKA will require will be developed by SKA South Africa and its international SKA partner agencies. Intel’s software will optimise the functioning of this specialist SKA software. The hardware that Intel will develop for SKA South Africa will be based on the company’s three-dimensional transistor technology.

“The MoU also covers marketing – that is, marketing the SKA to the youth to get them inter- ested in this iconic project,” he adds. “The idea is to demystify maths and science, to promote maths and science and to get students to chose maths and science careers.”

SKA South Africa will be supported by a virtual team of Intel engineers and researchers scattered around the world. Because a lot of Intel’s support will be in kind – with engineering teams of varying sizes working on different issues over differing time periods – it is not really possible to put a monetary value on it.

The SKA and MeerKat programmes are also stimulating the country’s information and communication technology (ICT) sector. “The Internet and knowledge-based economy is becoming a big focus in South Africa,” cites Morales. “I think we see a vibrant digital economy taking shape in this country as we speak. “The contribution of the Inter- net and digital economy to South Africa is still below 5% but we see it growing to between 5% and 10% in the foreseeable future. It’s very encouraging to see what is going on here. We are very hopeful we’ll see companies popping up here that will make breakthroughs.”

A lot of development has taken place in recent years regarding Africa’s ICT infrastructure, including the landing of new inter- (and intra-) continental cables and the rolling out of second- and third-generation wireless telephony and data systems. “This is very promising,” he affirms, “but there is a lot of infrastructure that still has to be deployed.”

Worldwide, about 1.5-billion people can access the Internet, with another two-billion waiting to do so, many of whom are in Africa. “A lot of technology evolution and innovation are still taking place. As a corporation, we keep on investing – including investing in this [EMEA] region,” he assures. “Europe, the Middle East and Africa is the biggest region for Intel. “Half of all innovation is taking place in this region, including innovation in Africa, where we have three legal entities – in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya – and more than 50 offices.”

The fact that Intel’s EMEA region supports SKA South Africa does not rule out Intel’s Asia region giving support to Australia’s SKA programmes.

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
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