February 5, 2010
U.S. Scientists Given Access to Cloud Computing
By JOHN MARKOFF
The National Science Foundation and the Microsoft Corporation have agreed to offer American scientific researchers free access to the company’s new cloud computing service.
A goal of the three-year project is to give scientists the computing power to cope with exploding amounts of research data. It uses Microsoft’s Windows Azure computing system, which the company recently introduced to compete with cloud computing services from companies like Amazon, Google, I.B.M. and Yahoo. These cloud computing systems allow organizations and individuals to run computing tasks and Internet services remotely in relatively low-cost data centers.
The new program was announced on Thursday at a news conference in Washington.
Neither Microsoft nor the foundation was willing to place a dollar amount on the agreement, but Dan Reed, the corporate vice president for technology strategy and policy at Microsoft, said that the company was prepared to invest millions of dollars in the service and that it could support thousands of scientific research programs.
Access to the service will come in grants from the foundation to new and continuing scientific research. Microsoft executives said they planned eventually to make the new service global.
The government has traditionally supported a group of scientific computing centers at universities and laboratories around the country. These centers have typically housed supercomputers capable of solving scientific and engineering problems quickly. In recent years, however, increasing emphasis has been placed on computing systems capable of storing and analyzing vast amounts of data.
“It’s all about data,” said Jeannette M. Wing, assistant director of computer and information science and engineering directorate at the science foundation. “We are generating streams and rivers of data.”
Genetic sequencing systems are capable of generating as much as a terabyte, 1,000 gigabytes, of information a minute, Dr. Wing said.
Microsoft made its commitment to scientific computing two years after a similar service was introduced by Google and I.B.M. Several scientists familiar with the Microsoft project said the software company was hoping to differentiate the new service by offering scientists a set of custom applications that simplified access to Azure and the use of older software applications like Microsoft Excel.
“We’re trying to figure out how to engage the majority of scientists,” said Dr. Reed, who directed several of the nation’s scientific computing centers before joining Microsoft.
Simplicity of use is one Microsoft goal. Programming modern cloud systems for full efficiency has been difficult. The company is trying to overcome this difficulty in creating a variety of software tools for scientists, said Ed Lazowska, a University of Washington computer scientist who works with the Microsoft researchers.
Dr. Lazowska said the explosion of data being collected by scientists had transformed the staffing needs of the typical scientific research program on campus from a half-time graduate student one day a week to a full-time employee dedicated to managing the data. He said such exponential growth in cost was increasingly hampering scientific research.