Kioxia in spaaace… as part of Spaceborne Computer-2 project

Kioxia today announced that HPE servers fitted with Kioxia SSDs are being used on the International Space Station (ISS) as part of the NASA and HPE Spaceborne Computer-2 (SBC-2) program.

The idea was to put ordinary commercial servers aboard the ISS to do as much compute as possible at the space station rather than always beaming data back to Earth for processing or physically returning disk drives. The program started in 2017 and SBC-1 was sent to the ISS in 2018 aboard a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. It returned in 2019.

SBC-1 used two HPE Apollo 40 servers with a water-cooled enclosure, and it ran for a year, simulating, HPE said, the amount of time it would take to travel to Mars. The system was ruggedized to withstand radiation, solar flares, subatomic particles, micrometeoroids, unstable electrical power, and irregular cooling. 

Sending data to Earth for processing on such a trip “could mean it would take up to 20 minutes for communications to reach Earth and then another 20 minutes for responses to reach astronauts.” That means the compute really has to be done on board a space vessel. SBC-1 demonstrated it could provide a teraflop of compute capacity.

The follow-on SBC-2 mission was launched two years ago to demonstrate that ordinary servers could run data-intensive computational loads such as real-time image processing, deep learning, and scientific simulations during space travel. It doubled the compute power of SBC-1 and would run aboard the ISS for two to three years, ingesting data from a range of devices, including satellites and cameras, and processing it in real-time. The system was installed and powered up in May 2021.

Scott Nelson, EVP and CMO for Kioxia America, bigged up the company’s participation, saying: “Proving that datacenter-level compute processing can successfully operate in the harsh conditions of space will truly take something special. The synergies that exist when Kioxia and HPE collaborate to leverage our respective technologies, allows us to explore and study at the very edge of scientific discovery. We can’t wait to see where the HPE Spaceborne Computer journey takes us.”

HPE CMO Jim Jackson added: “By bringing Kioxia’s expertise and its SSDs, one of the industry’s leading NAND flash capabilities, with HPE Spaceborne Computer-2, together, we are pushing the boundaries of scientific discovery and innovation at the most extreme edge.”

HPE SBC-2 lockers featuring Kioxia storage
The two HPE SBC-2 lockers aboard the ISS

SBC-2 uses COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) servers: two ruggedized Edgeline EL4000 and ProLiant DL360 Gen 10 (gen 2 Cascade Lake CPU) servers running Red Hat Linux. One of each server is fitted in two lockers. Due to the small footprint available aboard the ISS, there is no shared storage and no traditional SAN. But SBC-2 is fitted with GPUs to process image-intensive data requiring higher resolutions such as shots of polar ice caps on Earth or medical X-rays, and support specific projects using AI and machine learning techniques.

The AI capability could be used for checking astronaut space walk wear.

Dr Mark Fernandez, solution architect, Converged Edge Systems at HPE, said: “The most important benefit to delivering reliable in-space computing with Spaceborne Computer-2 is making real-time insights a reality. Space explorers can now transform how they conduct research based on readily available data and improve decision-making.”

An SBC-2 test involved DNA sequence data. Previously, 1.8GB of raw DNA sequence data took an average time of 12.2 hours to download to Earth for initial processing. With SBC-2, researchers on the space station processed the same data in six minutes to gather insights. They then compressed it to 92 KB and sent it to Earth in two seconds, representing a 20,000x speed-up, HPE said.

Two types of Kioxia’s SSD are being used: the 2.5-inch format RM enterprise SAS SSD and M.2 gumstick card XG NVMe SSD. We are not being given the precise model generation numbers or capacities.

Why is Kioxia announcing its presence in the SBC-2 kit now on February 27? After all, the drives it sent up were 2021 vintage. It may have been tried to catch a marketing ride on today’s scheduled Crew-6 mission to the ISS. Unfortunately, that ride was called off two minutes before launch due to an issue with the rocket’s ignition fluid. The next launch date is March.