Research gives new role for the cloud

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Cloud computing, where computing resources from shared servers are used via the internet, is one of the buzzwords of 2010. Many of us are using cloud applications whether we know it or not. Even universities do, for instance by providing their staff and students with email, calendar and other communication and collaboration applications through Google services. Some institutions are even trying to outsource entire applications like travel expense reimbursements and payroll administration.

The trend to outsource to ‘the cloud’ is also has interesting applications for research. Cloud computing can offer a university or college a flexible way to ‘rent’ the software or hardware that it needs, with benefits ranging from cheaper energy bills to preserving and sharing data more effectively.

There is increasing interest in the UK in finding out whether the education sector would benefit from a nationwide research cloud. A JISC study found that a quarter of IT and network services managers in UK colleges and universities are already aware of cloud computing being used for outsourcing.  But as we discovered through a series of projects last year, there is little use of the cloud for university research at the moment in the UK.  We need to understand why this is and how the cloud can fit into the mixed economy of high performance and high throughput computing that is used by researchers.

What makes the cloud so attractive is that you only pay for the resources you actually use. Instead of supporting and staffing a server room 24/7 – even if most of the resources are only fully utilised at peak time for short moments – organisations pay a cloud provider to host their applications and provide storage and compute power as needed. The virtual cloud infrastructure is increasingly used to host websites and web applications, and cloud computing can also provide support for an existing IT infrastructure at peak times of usage, allowing to step up computing power temporarily as needed.

One promise of cloud computing is that it will make storage and computing power cheaper. Using economies of scale, cloud providers with their efficient data centres can often provide resources much more cheaply than universities. Because of the flexibility of the virtualised cloud infrastructure, additional servers can be set up quickly without needing to involve the service providers at universities. And as these systems are hosted outside the university network, the sometimes restrictive security policies within that network do not apply. Some cloud providers also offer basic services for free, such as Dropbox, allowing you to evaluate the systems before paying for the more advanced services.

At a workshop hosted by Research Councils UK in July 2010 delegates from across academia explored the opportunities of cloud computing for research. They also looked at the barriers to its wider exploitation by researchers in the UK. These include the heterogeneity of cloud platforms; the lack of benchmarking information about commercial cloud platforms; issues of privacy, ethics and security, particularly in relation to data management and storage; uncertainties in prediction of the cost of research activities utilising cloud; and the absence of software tools, methods and platforms for researchers to properly exploit the cloud.  Many of these issues are also highlighted in two recent studies supported by JISC (Using Cloud Computing for Research and Technical Review of Cloud Computing for Research ).

In order to address these issues, EPSRC (the UK’s engineering and physical sciences research council) and JISC have issued a call for proposals to further explore the potential for cloud computing as a platform for research. Starting in January 2011, a range of pilot projects funded under this call will probe cloud computing as a platform for enabling, facilitating and undertaking research, with a particular focus on engineering and the physical sciences. The projects will explore the issues and benefits of porting existing tools into the cloud as well as exploring new routes to research in the cloud. Applications range from cloud-based modelling to predict urban flooding to the creation of pilot software to secure data in the cloud or using the cloud to analyse space debris data.

As well as to encourage new users to the cloud, the call also aims to enable the UK research community to further explore the issues raised at the RCUK Cloud Workshop. To this end, JISC and EPSRC will host a workshop in summer 2011 in order to share the results and the lessons learned, and to discuss best practice. This will help the sector to better understand what the benefits of cloud computing are, what issues exist and for which type of application the cloud may not be suitable.

The cloud may also have potential for other uses related to research. For instance, cloud storage can make it easier for projects to share their data across institutions and help with the management of research data. JISC will explore these issues further and work with the sector to get a better understanding of how cloud computing can best be used to support researchers and deliver on some of the, currently, more nebulous promises of the cloud.

Torsten Reimer is programme manager for digital infrastructure at JISC, UK