Microsoft Gives Researchers Free Cloud Computing Access

The move comes just days after Microsoft launched Windows Azure as a paid service after months in beta and trials. Azure is Microsoft's cloud platform built to rival the likes of Google and Amazon, dominant players in the emerging cloud computing game. As a platform, Windows Azure provides on-demand compute and storage to host, scale and manage Web applications via the cloud through Microsoft data centers.

According to Microsoft, individual researchers and research groups selected through NSF's merit review process will be given free access to advanced cloud computing resources via Microsoft cloud services. The program, both Microsoft and NSF said, will broaden research capabilities, foster collaborative research communities and accelerate scientific discoveries. The NSF will control product awarding and management.

"The cloud, as a commodity service, is familiar to all of us," said Jeannette M. Wing, assistant director for the NSF Computer and Information Science directorate, in a Webcast unveiling the Microsoft-NSF cloud computing partnership. "From managing our e-mail, online shopping, posting pictures for our friends to see and, of course, the killer app -- search. However, the cloud as a research platform is still an underexplored territory."

Wing continued: "With the Windows Azure platform, we challenge the research community to invent new algorithms, languages and program models for computing on this architectural paradigm, a highly reliable networked cluster of machines that vie the illusion of unlimited resources."

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Wing said that cloud computing is suited for analyzing and mining "massive amounts of data."

As part of the deal, Microsoft will provide NSF-identified projects a three-year free ride on Windows Azure along with a support team to help researches integrate cloud technology into their research. Microsoft staffers will work with NSF grant recipients to set them up with tools, applications and data collections they can share with the academic community. Dan Reed, corporate vice president of technology strategy and policy and extreme computing at Microsoft, said Microsoft will offer NSF and its researchers a "substantial amount of storage" on Azure.

Reed and Wing said the goal is to give the scientific community a simple way to utilize massive amounts of data without the burden of managing the infrastructure or dealing with their own cloud architecture, which can often stifle innovation.

"We need to shift the dialog from a focus on infrastructure to a focus on insight, and that means reducing the burden of infrastructure management that exists for many academic researchers," Reed said.

In a statement, Reed added: "Cloud computing can transform how research is conducted, accelerating scientific exploration, discovery and results. These grants will also help researchers explore rich and diverse multidisciplinary data on a large scale.

Access to cloud computing resources will enhance scientists' ability to analyze and synthesize massive amounts of data while mining and combining disparate data sets, Wing added.

"We've entered a new era of science -- one based on data-driven exploration -- and each new generation of computing technology, such as cloud computing, creates unprecedented opportunities for discovery," Wing said. "We are working with Microsoft to provide the academic community a novel cloud computing service with which to experiment and explore, with the grander goal of advancing the frontiers of science and engineering as we tackle societal grand challenges."