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Client+Cloud Support for Euro Science
October 27, 2010 12:01 AM PT

Scientists in Europe share a common problem: Managing and extracting insight from enormous volumes of data generated today by low-cost sensors, improved computer performance, and advanced experiments and simulations.

Given that scientific challenges these days often exist at the overlap of traditional fields, scientists and academics from different cultures, using different research tools, are collaborating in new ways to build multidisciplinary models and to analyze data from diverse sources.

Microsoft Research is taking a step toward helping Europe’s scientific community solve that problem—and perhaps many more. On Oct. 27, during the Open Grid Forum in Brussels, Microsoft is announcing partnerships with several key organizations, for which Microsoft will provide scientific researchers with access to advanced client-plus-cloud computing resources and technical support as part of the company’s global cloud–research-engagement initiative launched earlier this year.

Partnering with Microsoft are the European Commission, which is focused on creating a cloud-research foundation for research and industry, resulting in the Virtual Multidisciplinary EnviroNments Using Cloud Infrastructures project (VENUS-C); France’s INRIA (Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control), a national research institution focused on computer science; and the U.K.’s University of Nottingham.

With INRIA, Microsoft will help start a new cloud-computing project that will focus on computational neuroscience. At the University of Nottingham, Microsoft will develop cloud support for Horizon, the digital economy hub for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Center. This project is examining ways new technologies can improve the quality of life for everyone, drawing on leading groups working in computer science, engineering, business, psychology, and sociology.

Under the new agreements, Microsoft will provide researchers with access to its Windows Azure cloud services. Microsoft also will help researchers integrate cloud technology into their work by giving them access to a team of Microsoft cloud specialists. The goal is to give European scientists a common set of tools, applications, and data sets they can share with the scientific community.

Integrated with Existing Grid

Microsoft is a major partner in and initiator of the VENUS-C consortium, a project co-funded by the European Commission to deploy cloud-computing services for researchers across Europe. The consortium soon will announce an open call to European researchers to use the new resource and to apply for funding to support experimentation.

VENUS-C is developing and deploying a cloud-computing service for research and industry communities throughout Europe to demonstrate the feasibility and potential of a scientific cloud that is integrated with the existing European grid system. Microsoft’s contribution to the project is a substantial Windows Azure data and computing capability and teams of researchers, including one based at the European Microsoft Innovation Center, located in Aachen, Germany.

In addition, Microsoft will expand its European partnerships with INRIA and the University of Nottingham’s Horizon project. Both recipients will be provided with three years of free Windows Azure usage, which delivers on-demand computing and storage to host, scale, and manage web applications on the Internet through Microsoft data centers. Microsoft researchers and developers also will work with each recipient to equip them with a set of common tools, applications, and data collections that can be shared with the broad academic community. Microsoft also will provide expertise in research, science, and cloud computing.

The partnerships are similar to ventures already announced with the National Science Foundation in the United States and the National Institute of Informatics in Japan.

Dan Reed, Microsoft corporate vice president for Technology Policy and Strategy and Microsoft Research’s eXtreme Computing Group, is keynoting the Brussels event to discuss the new partnerships and their potential impact.

Reed says Microsoft’s partnership with the three European organizations will help re-shape how research is conducted and give scientists the ability to tackle big new projects.

For instance, he notes that today’s scientists are collecting data at a previously unimaginable scale. But what’s lacking is an effective way to utilize and extract insight from that data.

Dan Reed

“Cloud computing can transform how research is conducted, allowing scientists around the world to explore and share rich, diverse, multidisciplinary data sets with their own familiar desktop tools,” Reed says. “Through these grants and this global initiative, we seek to make simple yet powerful tools available that any researcher can use, empowering the research community broadly in new ways. Our goal is ultimately to accelerate global scientific exploration, discovery, and results.”

Reed describes how powerful, cloud-based data-analysis tools will seamlessly connect to and amplify the capabilities of desktop applications that researchers use today, such as extensive spreadsheets and visualization and simulation tools. Data stored in the cloud can be accessed by researchers from different disciplines in many locations, and they can build communities around solving complex problems.

In Europe, clouds will add a new dimension to the research infrastructure, facilitating the work of researchers using multiple cloud providers and becoming a seamless extension of the highly evolved computational grid.

With cloud computing, virtually any researcher can use simple tools to get answers to complex, data-intensive questions. For example, a scientist might use a spreadsheet to tap into a genomic-analysis service running on 600 servers or use a simple script to do data mining across 10,000 MRI images in mere minutes. A researcher could access data from remote instruments such as sensors in a rain forest and pull the data to a desktop for visualization and analysis.

The cloud also makes it possible for researchers to manage one of the consequences of today’s computer-centric research—the insatiable demand for easy-to-use tools and computing support. One of the great challenges created by a relatively inexpensive computing infrastructure over the last 15 years, Reed notes, is that generations of researchers have been turned into systems administrators—graduate students, post–doctoral researchers, and faculty members spend months or years maintaining the computing systems they require to do their research. At even the best-funded research organizations, though, the majority of researchers do not have access to the computing resources they need.

Scientists do not want to spend time building and managing computer infrastructure; they would prefer to focus on their science and leverage easy-to-use technology to advance discovery. Universities and research organizations try to supply the computational support needed but often lack the necessary scale and funding to keep pace with the exponential explosion of demand. The cost to maintain and refresh this computing infrastructure is becoming an increasingly large burden, and the economics are rapidly becoming unsustainable.

“That’s not their job,” Reed says. “Their job is discovery. With client-plus-cloud technology, we can take researchers out of the infrastructure business and allow them to focus on research questions.”

The cloud also can change the economics of discovery, making it possible for scientists who have limited budgets and computing means to tackle projects of nearly any size. That’s because the cloud is scalable—scientists need only use or purchase what they need for a given project, rather than building their own computing systems capable of handling peak loads.

Focus on Complex Problems

With these advanced client-plus-cloud resources, researchers will have new abilities to create and manage extensive simulation tools, gain access to huge amounts of data, and develop communities of researchers across a range of disciplines so they can focus on complex problems, for example, an oil spill. Understanding the complexities of what it means for oil distribution in water is a problem related to computational fluid dynamics, but understanding the impact of that oil on the marine ecosystem is a biological problem. To fully understand the issue, researchers from multiple disciplines have to unite.

The cloud offers unique opportunities to support a global, multiparty, and neutral type of collaboration—enabling a diverse set of experts scattered across multiple continents to bring their expertise to bear. For example, in the future of drug discovery, researchers could develop drugs targeted to individuals, not broad populations. To do so, the expertise of large pharmaceutical companies, the basic research of academia, and the growing body of medical knowledge and skills around the world need to come together seamlessly.

There are a whole host of issues that come with this, such as extracting the relevant data, correlating concepts, bridging cultural and technological divides, and alleviating competitive concerns. The cloud enables all these parties to access the data in neutral ways, in their own context via their own, familiar tools, and collaborate using many different models and designs, simulations, and experiments.

European researchers are excited about the potential of client-plus-cloud computing to give their research a big boost.

“Cloud computing could revolutionize science,” says Paul Watson, professor of computer science at Newcastle University and a VENUS-C partner. It can give researchers, he says, “all the resources that they need, when they need them, in order to do their science and pursue their ideas very quickly.”

Taking research into the cloud is one of the biggest changes scientists have encountered in decades—on par with the launch of the Internet. In Europe, it will give researchers the tools they need to tackle, and perhaps solve, big problems—climate change, global health, technological innovation, and more.

Research in the cloud is a paradigm shift that is just beginning, and Microsoft will continue to make investments in client-plus-cloud technology globally to continue to drive this positive change.