Microsoft's Azure cloud platform can do more than process enterprise workloads and power the company's wide-ranging online services portfolio. It can also help researchers fish out scientific discoveries from a sea of big data.
While Microsoft's cloud is largely defined by its consumer- and business-friendly capabilities, the company has been reaching out to the scientific community to popularize the platform among researchers. The Microsoft Azure for Research Award program, for instance, encourages scientists to submit research proposals for a shot at cloud computing time.
The company is joining Google in supporting the White House Climate Data Initiative by pledging 12 months of free Microsoft Azure resources, including up to 180,000 hours of cloud computing time and 20TB of storage. Microsoft is accepting proposals up to June 15.
Drawing attention to cloud computing's heightened role in science research, Xin Ma, a senior research program manager at Microsoft Research Asia, said in blog post that her group "has collaborated closely with domestic and international researchers on a wide range of topics, including the environment, data modeling, biological computing, climate change, and urban computing." Those efforts are starting to pay off in the form of projects that help scientists cut big data down to size.
"In this era of big data, cloud computing offers scientists a platform for dealing with massive amounts of data and the growing requirements of distributed, multidisciplinary collaborations to drive new discoveries," said Eric Chang, senior director of technology strategy at Microsoft Research Asia, in a statement.
Some of the Azure-based projects include an eco-hydrologic modeling project from Professor Chunmiao Zheng and researcher Guoliang Cao of Peking University. The scientists are leveraging Azure to explore the ecology of the Heihe River Basin, offering insights into maintaining sustainable freshwater supplies.
Another environmental-themed project is being headed by Professor Yuqi Bai of Tsinghua University that involves 1.5 petabytes of data. His team is creating "an integrated research environment for archiving, searching, analyzing, and intercomparing CMIP5 [Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5] data with the CMIP5 Sea Ice Data Portal," stated Xin Ma, a major step up from CMIP's Web-based system, which only supports searching and downloading.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences is using Microsoft's cloud to ingest heterogeneous data from multiple sources and derive models on how terrestrial ecosystems influence the climate. Azure is helping Professor Yan Xu of Beihang University develop new techniques for detecting colon cancer in pixel-packed digitized histopathological images.
Zheping Xu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences is using Azure and Microsoft's Bing mapping technologies to study the distribution of species using data from the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Xin Ma describes the library as "an international cooperative project that has scanned and openly shares more than 100,000 volumes—totaling some 43 million pages and 97 million species records."