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February 21, 2011

The High-Tech Farm Report: Cloud Computing Comes to Agriculture

Nicole Hemsoth

When it comes to agriculture and farming, success is always dependent on cycles of one kind or another. Seasons change, precipitation varies, climate patterns shift… In short, there are times of plenty and there times of great demand, thus farmers need to automatically scale their resources and provision according to immediate needs and their own spending, yield and other policies. Does that model sound familiar – like perhaps the case for cloud computing?

While the shifting, cyclical demand creates plenty of uncertainty for farmers, the sporadic, constantly-changing nature of needs versus spare capacity creates an ideal environment for cloud computing models to thrive.

Cloud computing is catching on for large providers of agricultural services and as a tool to help agricultural researchers in the field and in the lab. This year there should be a wealth of new use cases that highlight the way a number of technologies come together – everything from application development for mobile devices operating in the cloud to new sensors that send data to remote resources – all of which are either enabled or enhanced by cloud.

Agricultural cloud computing use cases are wide-ranging; from the refinement of planting and harvesting operations to research based on the integration of global positioning data and in-field studies. What is interesting about this field is that cloud computing in agriculture is benefiting from the integration of a number of improvements in mobile, sensor, GIS, GPS and other technological developments in tandem. Use cases for agricultural production and research projects go far beyond simple remote hosting.

Of the synthesis in new technologies enabled by the cloud, Emily Padfield states, “Radio-frequency identification tags (RFIDs), which can hold and automatically download a mass of data, are becoming part of agriculture. Bale tagging systems that hold data on the bale’s moisture content, weight and GPS position of where they came from in the field already exist, but in the future, micro-tags of the size of soil particles will be deployed extensively in fields measuring such things as moisture, disease burden and even whether the crop is ready to harvest or not.”

Padfield continues about the merger of cloud computing with a number of newer technologies, noting: “Mountains of GPS-sourced 3D data is now being gathered on farms, but instead of experts analyzing the data, the job is being done by automated computer systems that allows farmers to benefit from new techniques almost immediately…And all of that information coming from farm mapping, machines working in the field and remote sensors will be transferred to remote servers for access anywhere.

Mobile phones and tablets are leveraging cloud computing live from the field (as in the case of the USDA’s new Object Modeling System for agricultural research, for example) and large internal IT systems are being virtualized to improve efficiency given that needs literally change with the season, as do requirements for compute capacity.

Some large farm-focused companies have already looked to streamline their operations using cloud computing. Monsanto, a global provider of agricultural products is among the first large-scale agriculture company to jump on board with cloud computing solutions. During planting season, Monsanto sees massive increases in need for IT services, which makes them an ideal candidate for scalable systems that change with demand. In October, Monsanto selected BMC Software and the Cisco Unified Computing System to create their IT environment that would scale automatically and help Monsanto reach its stated goal of 70 percent server virtualization.

In April of last year, Fujitsu announced that it would be rolling out a series of cloud computing services for Japan’s agriculture industry. This was deemed a good fit for the country because “agricultural producers and corporations throughout Japan are scattered and given the relatively limited size of their operations, most lack ICT skills and dedicated professionals.” The Fujitsu agriculture services were delivered out of one of Fujitsu’s Japanese datacenters and delivered services ranging from farm management and accounting tasks to agricultural product safety.

Supporting agriculture at the national level like Fujitsu did in Japan, especially with a population that lacks access to sophisticated computational power and tools, is one way that we might see cloud computing in agriculture explode over the coming years. It is a perfect fit – demand fluxuates, software-as-a-service provides tools needed without installation on machines that would require capital investment, and most farmers are not IT experts and need abstraction from the technical layers.

Big agricultural companies and focused research efforts to aid in collaboration and better farming techniques are seeing some benefit in a shift from on-site systems to remotely hosted platforms. While a great deal outside of research is not necessarily in the HPC realm, it is interesting to watch how a “traditional” enterprise is making use of new paradigms in IT.

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