Cloud Computing Coming to a University Near You

Google and IBM said yesterday they have created a computing cluster comprised of hundreds of servers and open-source software for universities to help them practice what the companies call parallel or "cloud" computing.

The ACCI (Academic Cluster Computing Initiative) will allow students and faculty to access the cluster from anywhere through the Web to work on Internet scale projects, such as fashioning search engines, building out social-networking sites or pretty much anything that involves a lot of Web real estate.

Google is hosting the servers in a data center somewhere, so universities don't have to worry about buying and finding space for hundreds of boxes, let alone configuring and maintaining them.

There is no denying this is altruistic to a degree. Students at such universities as University of Washington, Carnegie-Mellon University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Maryland will benefit from this program.

But make no mistake, this isn't analogous to the rich parent donating musical instruments to low-income students in grade school.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt and IBM CEO Sam Palmisano, neither of whom are inclined to do many interviews with the media, told the Wall Street Journal each company is committing $20 million to $25 million on this project, so you can be sure they would like to see some return on investment.

Strategically, ACCI is another way to stick it to Microsoft, which has its own vision for cloud computing but isn't likely to populate it with open-source software the way Big Blue and Google will. Planting the cloud-computing seeds in universities now is a fine pre-emptive strike.

Moreover, by enabling students to build scalable Internet applications with their infrastructure, IBM and Google theoretically could groom standout students for programming positions in the future. Don't think that Google and IBM couldn't use more help to push their Apps and Lotus Connections social-computing tools, respectively.

Consider the co-creator of the ACCI, Christophe Bisciglia. Now a senior software engineer for Google, Bisciglia created a search engine as a student at the University of Washington, which no doubt attracted the attention of the super search engine. By creating the ACCI, Bisciglia may be paying it forward for Google in a big way. I asked Bisciglia about this in a phone interview yesterday.

"There's no secret that if created, a platform like this is going to create more qualified, talented engineers," Bisciglia said. "We will be interested in those people along with other leaders in the industry and graduate schools. Everyone benefits from this, and that includes us. The academic community has given so much to Google...and this is one way we can give back in a meaningful way that helps academia and, in the long-term, helps the entire industry."

Stay tuned for the next wave of the Google army.