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Data and the stars

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An ambitious star-mapping project highlights the growing importance of big data and the cloud, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

At an event in Berlin today, the European Space Agency (ESA) is unveiling the biggest set of data about the stars ever gathered. The positions and magnitudes of no less than 1.7 billion stars of our Milky Way galaxy have been gathered by the Gaia spacecraft, which took off in 2013 and began collecting data a year later.

The ship is also transmitting a vast range of additional data, with distances, motions and colours of more than 1.3 billion stars collected so far. And that is without counting temperature measures, solar system analysis and radiation sources from outside the galaxy.

“The extraordinary data collected by Gaia throughout its mission will be used to eventually build the most accurate three-dimensional map of the positions, motions, and chemical composition of stars in our Galaxy,” according to a project document. “By reconstructing the properties and past trajectories of all the stars probed by Gaia, astronomers will be able to delve deep into the history of our Galaxy’s formation and evolution.”

The entire project would be impossible were it not for advances in cloud computing storage,  big data analysis and artificial intelligence systems during this decade. The storage demands alone are mind-boggling. The ESA roped in cloud data services company NetApp, which focuses on management of applications and data across cloud and on-premise environments.

NetApp was previously involved with the Rosetta space mission, which landed a spacecraft on a comet in 2016. Lauched as far back as 2004, ten years later it became the first spacecraft to go into orbit around a comet, and its lander made the first successful landing on a comet.

“For the next two years Rosetta was following the comet and streaming data,” says Morne Bekker, NetApp South African country manager. “But with the comet speeding away from the sun at 120 000kph, Rosetta would soon lose solar power. Scientists seized the opportunity to attempt what no one had ever tried before — to gather unique observations through a controlled impact with the comet. Despite blistering speeds and countless unknowns, the spacecraft landed just 33m from its target point. 

“It’s quite phenomenal when you think of the data and analytics harvested, and the information it can send back. Now we’re helping with the Gaia project. You can imagine how much data is being collected daily. The catalogue will probably end up at 2 Petabytes in size – that’s 2-million gigabytes. If you think of the minute points of data being extracted, obviously you have to be using AI and machine learning to analyse all of this.”

Ruben Alvarez, IT manager at the ESA, sums it up simply: “Data is everything. Our biggest challenge is processing of the data.”

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Naturally, ESA required absolute reliability from data storage. It also demanded almost infinite scalability to support the massive data requirements of past, present, and future missions. 

“We have a commitment to deliver data to different institutes in Europe on a daily basis,” says Alvarez. “Adding to the challenge, data from every mission must be accessible indefinitely. In the coming years, we will be launching new missions that will demand huge amounts of data. NetApp provided us with solutions that were scalable, even if we didn’t know in advance how much disk storage we were going to need.”

ESA says it expects to publish the full Gaia catalogue in 2020, making it available online to professional astronomers and the general public, with interactive, graphical interfaces.

The catalogue, says Alvarez, will unlock many mysteries of the stars.

“We call our site the Library of the Universe because we keep the science archive of
all of our scientific missions. This is how we allow people to really investigate the universe. t’s all about the data.” 

The mission has tremendous scientific implications, but also makes a powerful business case for big data and cloud computing.

“The capabilities for AI and machine learning in the processing of mass amounts of data are far-reaching,” says Bekker. “Not only does it equate to extreme performance, but also to massive non-disruptive scalability where scientists can scale to 20 PB and beyond, to support the largest of learning data sets. Importantly it also allows scientists to expand their data where needed.”

Across Africa, the power of the cloud and big data is only slowly being harnessed. A new research project, Cloud Africa 2018, conducted by World Wide Worx for global networking application company F5 Networks, shows that cloud uptake is now pervasive across Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.

However, the research reveals that each country experiences the benefits of the cloud differently. Respondents in Nigeria and Kenya named Business efficiency and Scalability by far the most important benefit, with 80% and 75% respectively selecting it as an advantage. Only 61% of South African respondents cited it.

The opposite happened with the most important benefit among South Africans: Time-to-market or speed of deployment came in as the most prominent, at 68% of respondents. In contrast, only 48% of companies in Kenya and 28% in Nigeria named it as a key benefit.

This appears to be a function of the infrastructure challenges in developing information technology markets like Nigeria and Kenya, where the cloud is used to overcome the obstacles that get in the way of efficiency.

In South Africa, where construction of the giant Square Kilometre Array multi radio telescope is due to begin next year, the learnings of Rosetta and Gaia will ensure that data collection, storage and analysis will no longer be a challenge.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube

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When will we stop calling them phones?

If you don’t remember when phones were only used to talk to people, you may wonder why we still use this term for handsets, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, on the eve of the 10th birthday of the app.

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Do you remember when handsets were called phones because, well, we used them to phone people?

It took 120 years from the invention of the telephone to the use of phones to send text.

Between Alexander Graham Bell coining the term “telephone” in 1876 and Finland’s two main mobile operators allowing SMS messages between consumers in 1995, only science fiction writers and movie-makers imagined instant communication evolving much beyond voice. Even when BlackBerry shook the business world with email on a phone at the end of the last century, most consumers were adamant they would stick to voice.

It’s hard to imagine today that the smartphone as we know it has been with us for less than 10 years. Apple introduced the iPhone, the world’s first mass-market touchscreen phone, in June 2007, but it is arguable that it was the advent of the app store in July the following year that changed our relationship with phones forever.

That was the moment when the revolution in our hands truly began, when it became possible for a “phone” to carry any service that had previously existed on the World Wide Web.

Today, most activity carried out by most people on their mobile devices would probably follow the order of social media in first place – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn all jostling for attention – and  instant messaging in close second, thanks to WhatsApp, Messenger, SnapChat and the like. Phone calls – using voice that is – probably don’t even take third place, but play fourth or fifth fiddle to mapping and navigation, driven by Google Maps and Waze, and transport, thanks to Uber, Taxify, and other support services in South Africa like MyCiti,  Admyt and Kaching.

Despite the high cost of data, free public Wi-Fi is also seeing an explosion in use of streaming video – whether Youtube, Netflix, Showmax, or GETblack – and streaming music, particularly with the arrival of Spotify to compete with Simfy Africa.

Who has time for phone calls?

The changing of the phone guard in South Africa was officially signaled last week with the announcement of Vodacom’s annual results. Voice revenue for the 2018 financial year ending 31 March had fallen by 4.6%, to make up 40.6% of Vodacom’s revenue. Total revenue had grown by 8.1%, which meant voice seriously underperformed the group, and had fallen by 4% as a share of revenue, from 2017’s 44.6%.

The reason? Data had not only outperformed the group, increasing revenue by 12.8%, but it had also risen from 39.7% to 42.8% of group revenue,

This means that data has not only outperformed voice for the first time – as had been predicted by World Wide Worx a year ago – but it has also become Vodacom’s biggest contributor to revenue.

That scenario is being played out across all mobile network operators. In the same way, instant messaging began destroying SMS revenues as far back as five years ago – to the extent that SMS barely gets a mention in annual reports.

Data overtaking voice revenues signals the demise of voice as the main service and key selling point of mobile network operators. It also points to mobile phones – let’s call them handsets – shifting their primary focus. Voice quality will remain important, but now more a subset of audio quality rather than of connectivity. Sound quality will become a major differentiator as these devices become primary platforms for movies and music.

Contact management, privacy and security will become critical features as the handset becomes the storage device for one’s entire personal life.

Integration with accessories like smartwatches and activity monitors, earphones and earbuds, virtual home assistants and virtual car assistants, will become central to the functionality of these devices. Why? Because the handsets will control everything else? Hardly.

More likely, these gadgets will become an extension of who we are, what we do and where we are. As a result, they must be context aware, and also context compatible. This means they must hand over appropriate functions to appropriate devices at the appropriate time. 

I need to communicate only using my earpiece? The handset must make it so. I have to use gesture control, and therefore some kind of sensor placed on my glasses, collar or wrist? The handset must instantly surrender its centrality.

There are numerous other scenarios and technology examples, many out of the pages of science fiction, that point to the changing role of the “phone”. The one thing that’s obvious is that it will be silly to call it a phone for much longer.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube
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MTN 5G test gets 520Mbps

MTN and Huawei have launched Africa’s first 5G field trial with an end-to-end Huawei 5G solution.

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The field trial demonstrated a 5G Fixed-Wireless Access (FWA) use case with Huawei’s 5G 28GHz mmWave Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) in a real-world environment in Hatfield Pretoria, South Africa. Speeds of 520Mbps downlink and 77Mbps uplink were attained throughout respectively.

“These 5G trials provide us with an opportunity to future proof our network and prepare it for the evolution of these new generation networks. We have gleaned invaluable insights about the modifications that we need to do on our core, radio and transmission network from these pilots. It is important to note that the transition to 5G is not just a flick of a switch, but it’s a roadmap that requires technical modifications and network architecture changes to ensure that we meet the standards that this technology requires. We are pleased that we are laying the groundwork that will lead to the full realisation of the boundless opportunities that are inherent in the digital world.” says Babak Fouladi, Group Chief Technology & Information Systems Officer, at MTN Group.

Giovanni Chiarelli, Chief Technology and Information Officer for MTN SA said: “Next generation services such as virtual and augmented reality, ultra-high definition video streaming, and cloud gaming require massive capacity and higher user data rates. The use of millimeter-wave spectrum bands is one of the key 5G enabling technologies to deliver the required capacity and massive data rates required for 5G’s Enhanced Mobile Broadband use cases. MTN and Huawei’s joint field trial of the first 5G mmWave Fixed-Wireless Access solution in Africa will also pave the way for a fixed-wireless access solution that is capable of replacing conventional fixed access technologies, such as fibre.”

“Huawei is continuing to invest heavily in innovative 5G technologies”, said Edward Deng, President of Wireless Network Product Line of Huawei. “5G mmWave technology can achieve unprecedented fiber-like speed for mobile broadband access. This trial has shown the capabilities of 5G technology to deliver exceptional user experience for Enhanced Mobile Broadband applications. With customer-centric innovation in mind, Huawei will continue to partner with MTN to deliver best-in-class advanced wireless solutions.”

“We are excited about the potential the technology will bring as well as the potential advancements we will see in the fields of medicine, entertainment and education. MTN has been investing heavily to further improve our network, with the recent “Best in Test” and MyBroadband best network recognition affirming this. With our focus on providing the South Africans with the best customer experience, speedy allocation of spectrum can help bring more of these technologies to our customers,” says Giovanni.

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