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Microsoft, NSF Open Azure to Researchers

Academic researchers can now apply for free access to Microsoft's Windows Azure cloud services.

The company's Research Division announced the program on Thursday in a joint press conference with the National Science Foundation (NSF), which will act as gatekeeper between researchers and the service.

Windows Azure (which rolled out as a commercial service earlier this week) is Microsoft's cloud platform that provides development tools, data storage and computational services for Web applications. Azure taps into Microsoft's .NET Framework, while also enabling other development platforms, such as PHP, Python, and Ruby.

According to Jeannette Wing, assistant director for Computer & Information Science & Engineering (CISE) at NSF, the partnership with Microsoft will allow researchers to leverage "highly scalable cloud computing services, especially for data-intensive applications."

Cloudy With a Chance of Free Tech Support
The partnership will provide selected researchers with three years of "access to Windows Azure technologies and services," according to Dan Reed, corporate vice president for technology strategy and policy and eXtreme computing at Microsoft Research. Participants will be able to "mine insights from data and simplify the burden of innovation and, perhaps most importantly, [gain] access to data sets," Reed added.

Microsoft will provide a technology team that will work directly with researchers. The team will help develop tools for use in the projects, consult on technical issues and field questions. In an e-mail, Microsoft described the support it plans to provide as follows:

  • Tutorials and papers to provide an overview of the platform;
  • A guide to best practices;
  • A benchmark suite;
  • Host reference data sets in Azure;
  • In-person training via a "Kickoff Workshop and Annual All Hands Meeting (AHM) at Microsoft Research";
  • A community site with a range of resources, including sample code, blogs and technical support; and
  • "Common services and tools that are of greatest value to the community of researchers," according to Microsoft.

Funding Streams
NSF is looking to fund two types of research projects: those focusing on advancing cloud computing itself and projects with scientific and computational science applications. At least $5 million will be available to fund Windows Azure services for researchers, representing "tens of projects," Wing said, adding that the agency is especially encouraging interdisciplinary projects in which computer scientists link up with scientists in other disciplines.

The agency will fund access to Windows Azure cloud services via three avenues, two of which are open to researchers and research groups now:

  1. NSF is now accepting proposals for supplements to existing awards;
  2. Researchers can apply for EAGER grants beginning immediately; and
  3. NSF will launch a program tentatively called "Computing in the Clouds" and will send out solicitations when that program is ready.

Proposals for supplemental grants can be submitted immediately and no later than April 15. Such proposals can also include a request for a one-year extension of a current NSF award.

Solicitations for the third program are expected to go out "in the next month or so," according to information supplied by Microsoft, with a deadline expected to be set for early summer and awards expected to roll out soon after.

'Drowning in Data'
The NSF is seeing scientists "drowning in data," Wing said. She cited a number of examples. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration houses 1.2 petabytes of climate data. The Large Hadron Collider is expected to generate 15 petabytes of data per year. Last but not least, the Square Kilometre Array generates an estimated 1 exabyte of data per week.

"All of this data is meaningless unless we can extract interesting information and derive new knowledge from it," Wing said. "We hope that scientists and engineers can explore the use of the Microsoft cloud computing service to mine their data for making new scientific discoveries and, more subtly, to ask questions that they may never have thought to ask before."

This is not the first time that the NSF has partnered with a cloud services provider. According to an open letter written by NSF's Wing and José Muñoz, acting director of the Office of Cyberinfrastructure (OCI), the NSF has also partnered with Google, IBM, HP, Intel and Yahoo for cloud and cluster/grid computing resources via the OCI and several universities.

Tapping into "the cloud as a research platform" still represents "underexplored territory," according to Wing.

"With the Windows Azure platform, we challenge the research community to invent new algorithms, languages, and programming models for computing on this architectural paradigm -- a highly reliable, networked cluster of machines that give the illusion of unlimited resources," she said.

The research community should utilize Microsoft's platform for "out-of-the-box" ideas, she added.

About the Author

Dave Nagel is the executive editor for 1105 Media's educational technology online publications and electronic newsletters.

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