A data center in a shoebox

IBM and ASTRON introduce

64-bit microDataCenter prototype prepares for Big Bang Big Data

Water-cooled, energy-efficient microserver will analyze petabytes of data daily


IBM and the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy ASTRON have unveiled the world’s first water-cooled 64-bit microserver.

The prototype, which is roughly the size of a smartphone, is part of the proposed IT roadmap for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an international consortium to build the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope.

Scientists estimate that the processing power required to operate the telescope will be equal to several millions of today’s fastest computers.


When it goes live by 2024, the SKA will collect a deluge of radio signals from deep space. To do so, thousands of antennas located in southern Africa and Australia will collectively gather 14 exabytes of data and store one petabyte every day. The SKA has been called the ultimate Big Data challenge.

To solve this unprecedented challenge, ASTRON and IBM scientists have launched an initial five-year, 35.9 M euro collaboration in 2012 called DOME, named for the protective cover on telescopes and the famous Swiss mountain.

“With the SKA we will be able to fill big gaps in our knowledge of the universe,” says Albert-Jan Boonstra, the scientific director of ASTRON.“We’ll be able to map the so-called ‘dark ages,’ the epoch of reionization, when the stars and galaxies formed.”

Based on the distributed design of the SKA, with a total antenna area of one square kilometer, and due to the large volume of Big Data collected, a high-performance computing architecture with data transfer links with a capacity that far exceeds current state-of-the-art technology must be developed to manage the process of gathering, storing and analyzing the 13 billion year old data from end to end. 

DOME is investigating and developing an emerging technologies roadmap for large-scale and efficient exascale computing, data transport and storage processes based on a data-centric computing model. Part of this roadmap includes a densely packed, highly efficient microserver which integrates a traditional server motherboard without the memories on a chip.

Ronald Luijten

Ronald Luijten, Data motion architect,
IBM Research


I like to call it a data­cen­ter in a shoe­box. With the com­bi­na­tion of pow­er and en­er­gy ef­fi­cien­cy, we be­lieve the mi­cro­ser­ver will be of in­te­rest be­yond the DOME pro­ject, par­tic­u­lar­ly for cloud data cen­ters and Big Data ana­lyt­ics ap­pli­ca­tions.

— Ronald Luijten, Data motion architect, IBM Research

The microserver’s team has designed and demonstrated a prototype 64-bit microserver using a PowerPC based chip from Freescale Semiconductor running Linux Fedora and IBM DB2. At 133 × 55 mm2 the microserver contains all of the essential functions of today’s servers, which are 4 to 10 times larger in size.

Not only is the microserver compact, it is also very energy-efficient. One of its innovations is hotwater cooling, which in addition to keeping the chip operating temperature below 85 degrees C, will also transport electrical power by means of a copper plate. The concept is based on the same technology IBM developed for the SuperMUC supercomputer located outside of Munich, Germany. IBM scientists hope to keep each microserver operating between 35–40 watts including the system on a chip (SOC) — the current design is 60 watts.

The next step for scientists is to begin to take 128 of the microserver boards using the newest T4240 chips to create a 2U rack unit with 1536 cores and 3072 threads with up to 6 terabytes of DRAM. In addition, they will be adding an Ethernet switch and power module to the integrated water-cooling.

IBM and ASTRON recently announced the launch of the European Research Center for Exascale Technology (ERCET) with the University of Groningen. The DOME project will be included in ERCET along with projects focused on Big Data applications in energy, healthcare and water management.

IBM and ASTRON: 64-bit microserver prototype

Highly efficient water cooling of processor, memory and voltage-controller components

This 90-second video shows ZRL scientists automatically booting all 8 nodes of the microDataCenter prototype.

IBM scientist Ronald Luijten (@ronaldgadget) presents the microserver at ASTRON's offices in Dwingeloo, The Netherlands.

They said it couldn't be done...