Technology Group Promises Scientists Their Own Clouds (the Data Kind)

Scientists will soon have access to their very own clouds. Not the meteorological sort—although these clouds might help advance weather research as well as improve medical systems and power-grid management.

The new clouds for scientists are the kind that store data on servers, as part of a trend known as cloud computing. Consumers use the commercial variety to store documents, photographs, and music. Researchers use those too, but they sometimes need more control over and information about cloud systems than host companies, such as Apple and Amazon, provide.

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Advances in network architecture aim to deal with the problem. On Tuesday the nonprofit organization Internet2 announced developments that will let researchers create and connect to virtual spaces, within which they will be able to conduct research across disciplines and to experiment on the nature of the web.

“What this does is allow computer-science researchers to look at new ways of potentially designing networks that could influence how the Internet itself works,” said Robert Ricci, a research assistant professor at the University of Utah’s School of Computing.

Internet2 provides a network for members, including more than 250 American colleges and universities, as well as corporations, research groups, and government agencies. The group also facilitates research by connecting campuses and transmitting large amounts of data at a faster speed than commercial networks offer. New software developed by the group partitions the Internet2 network into private slices, while two projects, CloudLab and Chameleon, provide frameworks for the creation of clouds connected by Internet2.

Mr. Ricci, the program’s primary investigator, likened the efforts to “how we buy telescopes or genome sequencers that give the astronomy or genetics community tools they need to do their research.”

“One of the things that this will enable computer scientists to do is come up with better network-management systems to support scientists who have these large data transfers,” said Mr. Ricci. ”They will have complete visibility into [the clouds] so they can really treat this as a scientific instrument and not a black box.”

Computer scientists will benefit from the project, but so should computational scientists and researchers in other fields.

Mr. Ricci said new cloud capabilities would be especially beneficial in realms where the digital and physical worlds intersect, such as in the collaboration—between computer-science researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and meteorologists at the university’s Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere—to improve radar systems that collect weather information.

Students also stand to benefit from the cloud-creation programs, such as undergraduates at the University of Utah who take classes about data-center engineering. American universities also need cloud systems to deliver content to their global campuses, said Larry Peterson, a professor emeritus at Princeton University and professor of computer science at the University of Arizona, during a news conference. “It is foundational,” Mr. Peterson said of the advances.

Funded by a $10-million grant from the National Science Foundation, CloudLab will be free to researchers whose proposals are approved. Mr. Ricci said he hopes that approach will help level the research playing field.

“You don’t have to be a big university with a large hardware budget,” he said, “to use these things.”

Correction (10/29/2014, 12:00 p.m.): This post originally gave an incorrect first name for the project’s primary investigator. He is Robert Ricci, not Richard Ricci. The text has been corrected.

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