April 22, 2011

National Science Foundation Partnership Funds Cloud-Society Research

Nicole Hemsoth

Between the commercial drive to improve enterprise use of cloud computing and the overwhelming response from innovative researchers worldwide, 2011 could very well be the year of explosive growth in the improved use of high performance clouds. These cloud-powered advancements are poised to benefit business, research and society over the coming years.

Does that sound like a bit of a stretch to you? That cloud computing, combined with new approaches to software and an enhanced high-performance computing ecosystem, could make the world a better place?

At the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, Zhengchang Su and his team will be using cloud computing to bring expanded understanding of bacterial genomes to a diverse array of fields, including renewable energy production, environmental health and disease prevention.

Researchers from the University of South Carolina and University of Virginia will use cloud-based tools to collaborate for better understanding and management of complex watershed systems. They hope to improve responses to droughts, floods and water quality issues through these efforts.

Kwa Sur Tam at Virginia Tech is exploring the use of cloud-based systems to refine the way we understand and use renewable energy sources. Using a sophisticated FaaS (Forecast-as-a-Service) framework that combines various prediction sources could eventually allow for tailored delivery of renewable energy to accommodate a range of uses, budgets and locations.

Wuchun Feng and his team, also at Virginia Tech, will be conducting experiments in intensive biocomputing to find better ways to manage and use the multi-terabyte sets that emerge daily from DNA sequencing efforts. The team sees great opportunities for improved sequencing. However, like many other biologists, they recognize a need for a new generation of hyper-efficient data management and analysis software for large-scale, data-intensive applications living in the cloud.

Without refinements in cloud computing and massive data management abilities, however, these projects will not be able to deliver on their hopes. Researchers like Kenneth Birman and his team from Cornell University are asking questions about scalable trust in cloud environments. Over the next two years Birman and his researchers will examine the overall consistency of cloud-based applications and how these can be more scalable and trusted in large-scale systems.

Also helping this effort to improve delivery and use of cloud computing resources for data-intensive applications is Michael Walfish from the University of Texas at Austin. This team hopes to build a cloud storage system under “minimal trust assumptions” to improve security and data protection.

Viktor Prasanna from the University of Southern California wis tackling large-scale graph problems, especially as there is a need for framework that can use real-time search and semantic associations to improve healthcare and energy delivery.

The Tie that Binds…

Each of these projects refines the information delivery and management process or looks ahead to use high-performance cloud computing to solve some of the world’s toughest problems.

While each of these specific research projects is different either in scope or focus, they share a few important elements in common.

Outside of being part of a larger worldwide effort to use clouds for research that will benefit society either in terms of economics, health or environmental conditions, these are all projects that were awarded via a partnership between Microsoft and the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States.

The NSF is distributing $4.5 million among the thirteen projects that were selected following a peer-review process. This is the culmination of an effort announced last February’s about the award up for grabs.

The foundation sees great value in cloud computing, according to Farnam Jahanian, assistant director of the NSF’s Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering. He states that the researchers will “use the resources Microsoft will provide to explore and experiment with cloud computing in order to address some of society’s greatest challenges.”

For its part, Microsoft’s research arm is granting the thirteen teams selected (more detail about their projects here) free access to the Windows Azure platform for two years for storage, hosting and web application management.

Moreover, Micosoft is also donating some of its own researchers to help guide and aid in the selected projects.

Improving Technical Computing for the Non-IT-Expert

In an opinion piece about the NSF/Microsoft partnership, Microsoft’s corporate VP for the eXtreme Computing Group and Technology Strategy and Policy, Dan Reed stated that this effort goes beyond mere access or granting of cloud resources. He says that this arrangement “between academic and Microsoft researchers, creation and release of easy-to-use client tools, and an exploration of the new world of massive data are all key elements of our shared journey to a new model of data-rich analysis enabled by powerful client tools and cloud services.”

Reed continued by addressing the idea that successful technology eventually becomes invisible in that it allows research to occur without researchers having to delve deeply into the technical elements. In short, a successful technology will let researchers focus on their area of interest—permitting freedom from the burden of the tech behind their processes. He feels that “technical computing can and should be an invisible intellectual amplifier, as easy to use as any other successful consumer technology.”

Microsoft’s strategy around its technical computing initiative parallels their approach to making technology “invisible” for consumers over the years. We use Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint—basic office tools that belie remarkable sophistication and years of effort. However, when a user opens a window, the technology “just works” which means they can go about their mission—be it research, word processing or sharing information in the form of a spreadsheet.

By carrying over their key to consumer success—making this layer of complexity invisible—the company’s technical computing drive is, for the user anyway, supposed to be anything but technical. Microsoft in both its Azure cloud push and consumer-driven projects that increasingly are “all in” cloud-wise are pushing this invisibility factor. The question is whether or not this ease of use factor, when it is also at the heart of everyone’s rocket to the clouds, is going to differentiate them enough this time around.

They are certainly trying, however. Microsoft is clamoring for the top position in the cloud market, both on the consumer and research sides. Just last week the company’s president announced that 90% of their research budget will be sent to improving cloud technologies. To put this in some perspective, their R&D budget this year is just over $9.6 billion—yes, billion. If this kind of exponential figure is right, Microsoft is going to be pumping an incredible $8.6 billion into cloud computing this year.

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