eResearch continues to expand into the Cloud

Researchers around Australia will continue to have access to a growing research Cloud

Australia’s first research Cloud is expected to expand up to 25,000 cores over the next 18 months as the Cloud’s scalability increases.

The National eResearch Collaboration Tools and Resources’ (NeCTAR) research Cloud was launched in February this year and was developed by the University of Melbourne in conjunction with Xenon.

The Cloud was funded through the Education Investment Fund under the Super Science Initiative and provides Australian researchers with a community where they can share ideas, tools, research data and applications online in real time.

Tom Fifield, technology team lead of the NeCTAR research Cloud node at the University of Melbourne, told Computerworld Australia the research Cloud has been designed to foster innovation and collaboration between researchers from a variety of different publicly-funded disciplines around Australia.

“The research Cloud is really great for researchers because it gives them the utmost level of control over the resources,” Fifield says.

There are now 28 universities and 15 institutes using it, including the CSIRO and the Children’s Research Institute, and it is currently running 3840 cores in two data centres.

The University of Melbourne is currently the only university with a node to the Cloud, but other universities are expected to build nodes this year, with contract negotiations underway with the Australian National University, Monash University and the Queensland Cyber Infrastructure Foundation.

“Cloud computing has really enabled researchers to do things that they couldn’t do with existing infrastructure. Now people can run a Web server with collaboration tools on the Cloud, and that’s something that was previously impossible with the HPC system — they weren’t designed to do that kind of thing,” Fifield says.

The Cloud uses an OpenStack framework which has been modified to make it more accessible and user friendly. For example, users do not need new usernames or passwords to log into the Cloud as they can use existing university login details. Researchers can also run their own operating system and install software.

However, Fifield says it was difficult to find skilled people in OpenStack and as the Cloud was a ‘first’ in the field of research, NeCTAR could not look at previous case studies for guidance.

The Cloud was also required to be completed in a set timeframe. Fifield says, “We had to create a very complex Cloud computing environment with limited people on a crazily short timeframe. Some of us worked through the Christmas break in 2011 to get the Cloud live”.

It also needed to be easy to use, with complaints previously being made that eResearch infrastructure was difficult to navigate.

“When we were making the research Cloud, we really aimed to lower those barriers and make it as easy to use as possible,” Fifield said.

One way it has done that is to allow researchers to log into the Cloud without approval from NeCTAR for a trial period from one or two virtual machines.

In the medium term, Fifield says the focus will be to scale up the Cloud and provide an infrastructure layer which will allow researchers to carry out as much research as they need. Once the technology has been established, Fifield says the discussion can begin again around the actual research taking place.

“The idea is we’ve got this infrastructure and from here, once that’s sorted, we [can] start looking at platforms for collaboration and software offerings,” he said.

“Instead of researchers having to worry about infrastructure as a service [of] Cloud computing, they can just get in there, click a button and [they’ve got their information].”

Eventually Fifield would like to see the Cloud integrate into the everyday workflow of researchers around the country.

“Essentially, if we’re able to provide a resource that makes the researcher able to worry less about their computing and just get on with their research, then that would be a fantastic thing,” he says.

NeCTAR also recently signed a research tool contract with the University of Western Australia to create a new Cloud-based 'bioinformatics' tool.

Follow Stephanie McDonald on Twitter: @stephmcdonald0

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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