NSF and Microsoft team to offer free cloud computing to researchers

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Yesterday Dan Reed posted on his blog about a new partnership between the NSF and Microsoft

Microsoft logoToday, February 4, Microsoft and the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) announced a collaborative project where Microsoft will offer individual researchers and research groups (selected through NSF’s merit review process) free access to advanced client-plus-cloud computing. Our focus is on empowering researchers via intuitive and familiar client tools whose capabilities extend seamlessly in power and scope via the cloud.

In this partnership Microsoft will expend resources on porting PC applications to work in a cloud environment — with the idea presumably being to jumpstart the shift to cloud computing for scientific computing

By extending the capabilities of powerful, easy-to-use PC applications via Microsoft cloud services, our objective is to broaden researcher capabilities, foster collaborative research communities, and accelerate scientific discovery by shifting the focus from infrastructure to empowerment. This is a potentially profound shift in how we innovate in the 21st century.

In the past when Microsoft has stepped up to offer free tools to the scientific community some have complained that this is market dominance in disguise — get the kids hooked on the free sample, and they’ll buy the good stuff. What I see in this case, however, is a glimpse of the benefits I was hoping for when Microsoft got in to HPC in the first place. In order to truly democratize high performance computing (Reed refers to this in his post more eloquently as “enfranchising the majority”) we have to transform the tools of computing so that they are relevant on the platforms that everyone has access to. The problem is that there is a very limited commercial model for doing this today. Because of its scale Microsoft can afford to make an investment in this market that very few companies can, before the bottom line evidence exists. This is a Good Thing.

As Fred Brooks once remarked, “We must build tools so powerful that full professors want to use them, and so simple that they can.” Simplicity really, really matters. It is for this reason that Excel spreadsheets, high-level scripting languages and domain-specific client toolkits are now the lingua franca of multidisciplinary innovation, the harbingers of invisibility.

…Sadly, our technical computing experiences have been dominated and shaped by a focus on technology and infrastructure, rather than empowerment and simplicity. We talk routinely of data and software repositories, toolkits and packages; of cyberinfrastructure and technology roadmaps. In our technological fascination, it is all too easy to lose sight of the true objective. Infrastructure exists to enable. If it is excessively complex, cumbersome or difficult to use, its value is limited. The mathematician Richard Hamming’s admonition remains apt: “The purpose of computing is insight, not numbers.”

Dan’s post is passionate and smart; I recommend you read it. Yes there are technical challenges, and as my colleaque points out cloud computing isn’t great for everything. But nothing is great for everything. If you have to start somewhere, “enfranchising the majority” is a great place to plant your flag.