Microsoft, NSF Offering Free Cloud Computing to Researchers

Microsoft and the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced a collaboration to provide NSF-supported researchers with free access to the Windows Azure cloud platform and its development tools for three years. The evident hope is that those researchers will leverage the cloud-computing capabilities of the platform to analyze massive amounts of data inherent in large projects. Microsoft made the Windows Azure platform generally available on Feb. 1 in 21 countries, requiring users to pay for the service.

An agreement between Microsoft and the National Science Foundation will see the software giant providing NSF-supported researchers with access to the Windows Azure cloud platform and its various development tools. According to a press release issued by the NSF, following a joint press conference in Washington, D.C., on the afternoon of Feb. 4, the use of Azure is designed to complement "the computational platforms that NSF has made available to the research community to date."

Researchers' access to Azure will be free. More information about applying for grants supported by Azure can be found here. The NSF will review and award those grants, as well as manage the actual projects, which will have three years' use of Azure.

"Cloud computing can transform how research is conducted, accelerating scientific exploration, discovery and results," Dan Reed, corporate vice president of Technology Strategy and Policy and Extreme Computing at Microsoft, said in a Feb. 4 statement. "These grants will also help researchers explore rich and diverse multidisciplinary data on a large scale."

Projects in areas such as genetic research and sequencing can generate hundreds or thousands of gigabytes' worth of data per minute, in turn placing an urgent need for massive amounts of computing power on the scientific teams attempting to absorb and refine that data.

"We've entered a new era of science-one based on data-driven exploration-and each new generation of computing technology, such as cloud computing, creates unprecedented opportunities for discovery," Jeannette Wing, assistant director for the NSF Computer and Information Science directorate, said in a Feb. 4 statement. "We are working with Microsoft to provide the academic community a novel cloud computing service with which to experiment and explore, with the grander goal of advancing the frontiers of science and engineering as we tackle societal grand challenges."

On Feb. 1, Microsoft announced that the Windows Azure platform, the company's entrant into the cloud-computing space, was generally available in 21 countries. As part of that rollout, Windows Azure and SQL Azure stopped being free, starting at 12:00 a.m. GMT on Feb. 2, in order to give all those countries the chance at a full January of free service.

The Azure platform features three components: Windows Azure, the operating system as a service; SQL Azure, a cloud-relational database; and Windows Azure Platform AppFrabric, which offers secure connectivity and federated access control for applications.

Azure payment options include a pay-as-you-go model, a subscription format and volume licensing. With the cloud-computing market currently estimated at around $150 billion, and filling rapidly with competitors such as Google and Amazon, Microsoft has sufficient impetus to attempt to enter the space. Other company cloud-based initiatives include Windows Server 2008 R2 Hyper-V virtual machine support on Azure and stripped-down versions of its Office 2010 applications.