Handling the vast amount of data that can be generated from scientific research, including pharmaceutical research such as genome sequencing, can be a formidable task. Researchers may not be able to efficiently manage this task through the use of personal computers (PCs) alone, nor do they have access to supercomputers or other advanced information-technology (IT) systems. The emerging model of cloud computing, an advance in computational computing, seeks to address researchers’ difficulties by creating a community resource of computational and processing power accessible on demand through PCs. Last week Microsoft and the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced a partnership to increase access to cloud computing for NSF-supported researchers.
“There is a large community of researchers—social scientists, life scientists, physicists—running many computations on massive amounts of data,” said Dan Reed, corporate vice-president of Microsoft’s Technology Policy and Strategy and eXtreme Computing Group, in a Microsoft press release. “To use an example many people can understand—how can we enable researchers to run an Excel spreadsheet that involves billions of rows and columns and takes thousands of hours to compute, but still give them the answer in 10 minutes and maintain the desktop experience? Client plus cloud computing offers that kind of sweet spot.”
The principal advantage of cloud computing is that it allows researchers to access processing and computing power as necessary to the scale they need through their PCs without having to build or maintain their own supercomputer sites. “The cloud offers research computing for everyone, which is very much needed,” said Daniel Atkins, a professor of community information at the University of Michigan and former director of the US Office of Cyberinfrastructure at NSF, in the Microsoft press release. “It’s targeted at people who have large amounts of data that they want to process and extract knowledge from, but who do not need or cannot afford their own data centers.”
Some liken the development of cloud computing to a transformational change akin to the invention of the microprocessor, which incorporates the functions of a computer’s central processing unit on a single integrated circuit, and which enabled the rise of personal computers and other electronic devices. “This is a transformative technology like the invention of the microprocessor,” said David Patterson, professor of computer science at the University of California at Berkeley, in the Microsoft release. “I believe, for the rest of the decade, we’re going to watch this wave of technology transform our industry, as well as create opportunities for scientists and educators. Once it’s done, the IT world is going to be a different place.”
Last week, Microsoft and NSF announced an agreement that will offer individual researchers and research groups selected through NSF’s merit-review process free access to advanced cloud-computing resources, according to an NSF press release. Under the agreement, Microsoft will provide cloud-computing research projects identified by NSF with access to Microsoft’s Windows Azure for a three-year period, along with a support team to help researchers integrate cloud technology into their research. Windows Azure provides on-demand computing and storage to host, scale, and manage Web applications on the Internet through Microsoft datacenters. Microsoft researchers and developers will equip grant recipients with a set of common tools, applications, and data collections that can be shared with the broad academic community. Microsoft also will provide its expertise in research, science, and cloud computing. Projects will be awarded and managed by NSF.
Microsoft is not alone in the world of cloud computing. According to a recent article in the New York Times, competing companies such as Amazon, Google, IBM, and Yahoo also offer cloud-computing services. Cloud computing is not confined to tasks that would be done on supercomputers, but can be broadly defined as any service or program sent over an Internet connection, whereby an outside vendor operates the server and software, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.
For scientists, however, cloud computing may be the next tool to help resolve the cost, capacity, and time barriers encountered by researchers in need of high-powered computing and processing. This is an important development to watch in the coming years.