16 million neurons and 4 billion synapses in a carry on suitcase form factor

A few months ago, IBM unveiled the NeuroSynaptic Evaluation (NS1e) board, which contained a single TrueNorth chip, along with circuitry for interfacing the chip to sensors and real-world data. These boards were used in their August 2015 “Boot Camp” event, in which participants learned how to program the chip to implement cognitive systems [Brain-Inspired Computing Boot Camp Begins]. During BootCamp, each NS1e board was housed in its own plastic case, and for convenience, they built a rack to hold the 48 boards used during that event. Although the rack nicely organized and displayed the boards, a bulky assembly of power strips, ethernet switches, and servers were also required for their use.

Recently, a government client requested that IBM build a system of 16 NS1e boards, with power unit, ethernet switch, and Linux server all housed in a compact, self-contained unit, where each of the NS1e boards can be seamlessly integrated, but mounted in such a way that any individual board could be swapped in or out easily. This requirement led us to explore designs in which individual NS1e boards are mounted on cards that could be inserted vertically into a card rack and all elements were mounted in a small desktop rack unit.

They turned to a USB-style power distribution module developed by Cambrionix. While normally intended to charge and sync cell phones and tablets, it’s port capacity (16 USB ports) and current limits were suitable for our purposes. However, with typical USB connectors plugged into the Cambrionix board, the height required was close to 2U (3.5″), greater than the 1U we had allocated for the power distribution unit in the initial design. Fortunately, the card rack holding the NS1e boards did not occupy the full depth of the rack and we had just enough room to design a step-down enclosure using 1U of space above the NS1e drawer and dropping down to 2U in the back. Finally, to give some visual appeal, they united the 16 individual NS1e boards by spreading a graphic (our award-winning visualization of the network diagram of the monkey brain) across their front panels and added some accentuating LED strip lighting on both sides of the drawer and below the chassis.

Building the system, once all the planning was complete, was relatively straightforward.

The end result is a system that provides 16 million neurons and 4 billion synapses in a package about the size of a carry-on suitcase.