The past 10 years have seen a tremendous advance in information and digital technologies impacting scientific inquiry. Data are being created at volumes and rates that surpass researchers’ capabilities to manage and mine for knowledge, and the problem will increase exponentially in future.

Among the sciences with the greatest challenges are astronomy and bioinformatics. In astronomy, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) drives one of the most significant big-data challenges of the coming decade. Biomedical and other biological research is rapidly adopting high-throughput technologies, driving a growing demand in bioinformatics for expertise and facilities for big data management, storage and analysis.

New modalities and technologies are required to empower research and discovery in this data-intensive era. Research organisations and national communities that do not rise to this challenge will be marginalised.

During 2016, UCT led a consortium of institutions in the Western Cape to put in a bid to the National Integrated Cyberinfrastructure System (NICIS), supported by the Department of Science and Technology. The goal of this bid was to build a data-intensive research facility in the Western Cape that would cater explicitly to the needs of researchers working in astronomy and bioinformatics – two areas in which universities in the Western Cape have a strong international presence. The bid was successful; and today, this project is known as ‘Ilifu’ (‘cloud’, in isiXhosa).

What is Ilifu?

Ilifu is a consortium of Western Cape institutions that together will establish and operate a data-centric, high-performance computing facility for data-intensive research. The partner institutions are

  • Cape Peninsula University of Technology
  • Stellenbosch University
  • Sol Plaatje University
  • South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO, formerly SKA South Africa).
  • University of Cape Town (lead institute)
  • University of the Western Cape.

In addition to establishing and operating a data-intensive computing facility, the consortium will – in collaboration with local and international collaborators and partners – undertake research and development programmes for

  • Proto-typing a distributed, federated cloud-based infrastructure as a platform for data-intensive research, the African Research Cloud.
  • Development of data-processing pipelines and e-science research tools for big data analysis, visualisation and analytics.
  • Development and implementation of research data management systems and tools.
  • Development of platforms, portals and middleware to support access and collaborative research by distributed teams on data-intensive projects.

Ilifu is addressing the need for support for data-intensive research in South Africa. It is intended to be a research tool to enable South African researchers at the partner organisations to be world leaders in the strategic science domains of astronomy and bioinformatics.

Governance and management

Ilifu will receive funding from the Department of Science and Technology for a period of three years. It will bring together the existing infrastructure and expertise of the partner institutions and build on that to create a hub for data-intensive research systems, platforms and tools in the Western Cape. Within the three-year funding period, Ilifu is set to continue as a self-sustaining facility.

The authority on policy, procedures and direction of the facility will be the project steering committee, the core members of which are representatives of the consortium partner institutions.