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Microsoft and NSF giving away Azure

The National Science Foundation and Microsoft have announced they will be giving away Azure resources for researchers in an attempt to: “shift the dialogue to what the appropriate public/private interaction” is for research computing, according to Dan Reed, Corporate Vice President for Extreme Computing (yes, really) at Microsoft.

For 3 years, Microsoft is giving away an unspecified amount of storage and support as well as CPU time for research applications to be run on Azure. NSF assistant director for Computer & Information Science & Engineering Jeanette Wing suggested that cloud computing platforms and Azure in specific should be considered a better choice for research facilities than maintaining and building their own facilities.

“It’s just not a good use of money or space,” she said.

Look at the Large Hadron Collider, said Wing, which has 1.5 petabytes of data already, or digital research projects that can generate an exabyte of data in a week, or less. She urged researchers to use Azure to figure out new ways to coping with all that information.

This is a nice, charitable gesture, not unlike Amazon’s occasional giveaways to worthy scientific projects, of EC2 instances and bandwidth. There are significcant caveats that Microsoft and the NSF have papered over.

First, from all reports, Azure is a very large data center operation- possibly as large as some of the less prestigious high-performance computing facilities that researchers use around the world. unless Microsoft is giving away the whole thing, it’s not going to make much of a dent in the demand.

Second, go down to the local university science department and tell a professor he or she can hop on a virtualized, remote Windows platform and process their experiment data. Go on, I dare you.
99% of experimental, massive-data, high performance computing is done on open source, *nix-based platforms for some very sound reasons. Microsoft won’t gain much traction suggesting that researchers can do better on Azure. It may find some eggheads desperate for resources, but that’s a different story.

So what is the real import, the overall aim of setting up Azure as a platform to host boatloads of raw data and let people play with it? Both Reed and Wing said they wanted to see researchers with new ideas on how to search and manage these large amounts of data.
Well that makes more sense–go sign up for a grant, but read the fine print, or you could be inventing the next Google, brought to you by Microsoft…

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