Tuesday, August 22, 2017

HPE enters Mars race by sending supercomputer into space (and even Elon Musk is involved)

IT infrastructure will follow humans wherever we go and HPE, together with NASA, wants to be where no human has been before.

Humans have longed to reach Mars for many years. The idea of setting a human colony on the red planet has ignited much debate as well as the acceleration of technology development to make that dream come true.

However, while humans on Earth wait to become a multi-planetary species, at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, a spacecraft is scheduled to take off to space in a Mars related trip on August 14.

The Dragon Spacecraft is the SpaceX CRS-12 rocket, developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and will be sent to the International Space Station (ISS) National Lab. Musk has been an active voice in the space race, and has also shared his views on how one million humans could live on Mars.

Taking a leading role in the aforementioned launch is HPE, which will place a supercomputer on board of the rocket, called Spaceborne Computer.

The HPE Spaceborne Computer. Source: NASA

The computer is part of a year-long experiment conducted by HPE and NASA to run a high performance commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) computer system in space, “which has never been done before”, according to Alain Andreoli, Senior Vice President & General Manager, HPE Data Center Infrastructure Group.

He said: “The goal is for the system to operate seamlessly in the harsh conditions of space for one year – roughly the amount of time it will take to travel to Mars.”

The testing of the system in the same conditions the deployment would be faced with in a potential future trip to Mars is designed to help create the right IT infrastructure that will allow those travelling beyond Earth’s low orbit to carry out the necessary calculations for research projects.

Andreoli explained: “Many of the calculations needed for space research projects are still done on Earth due to the limited computing capabilities in space, which creates a challenge when transmitting data to and from space.

“While this approach works for space exploration on the moon or in low Earth orbit (LEO) when astronauts can be in near real-time communication with Earth, once they travel farther out and closer to Mars, they will experience larger communication latencies.”

According to the executive, these latencies could be of as much as 20 minutes each way, meaning that the exchange of a single message and consequent reply between astronauts and Earth could take up to 40 minutes.

“Such a long communication lag would make any on-the-ground exploration challenging and potentially dangerous if astronauts are met with any mission critical scenarios that they’re not able to solve themselves.

“A mission to Mars will require sophisticated onboard computing resources that are capable of extended periods of uptime.”

Andreoli’s point on the need to have IT power closer to the source where it is needed reflects the same idea put forward by other industry giants in the past such as Emerson.

In a 2016 interview, Jack Pouchet, VP for market development at Emerson Network Power, defended that supercomputers and data centres will have to follow human life, wherever humans go.

As for the Spaceborne Computer, this will include the HPE Apollo 40 class systems with a high speed HPC interconnect running an open-source Linux operating system. It contains compute nodes of the same class as NASA’s premier supercomputer, Pleiades.

“Though there are no hardware modifications to these components, we created a unique water-cooled enclosure for the hardware and developed purpose-built system software to address the environmental constraints and reliability requirements of supercomputing in space,” Andreoli said.

HPE’s system software will manage real time throttling of the computer systems based on current conditions and can mitigate environmentally induced errors.

Andreoli said: “We see the Spaceborne Computer experiment as a fitting extension to our HPE Apollo portfolio, purpose-built for supercomputing.

“HPE is excited to expand its relationship with NASA, pioneering HPC in space and taking one step closer to a mission to Mars.”

He also added that future phases of this experiment will eventually involve sending other new technologies and advanced computing systems, “like Memory-Driven Computing, to the ISS once we learn more about how the Spaceborne Computer reacts in space”.