Science cloud touted for ANZ researchers

Australian Research Collaboration Service to shift from grid to cloud model

Australian and New Zealand scientists will have access to a multi-million dollar cloud network within three to five years under slated improvements to Australia's grid networks. Australia also plans to invest in a A$50 million petabyte supercomputer and datacentre as part of the project.

The upgrades will make it easier for scientists working in fields such as cancer research, space exploration and mechanical engineering to access the nation-wide computer networks without requiring complex IT skills, or in most cases, without paying a cent. The trans-Tasman cloud network promises to be simpler, and more standardised and scalable than the current grid. It will be spearheaded by grid operator the Australian Research Collaboration Service (ARCS), which despite discordant opinion on what differentiates a cloud from a grid, says the upgrade is a natural progression that will benefit from developments like the Australian government's A$43 billion National Broadband Network (NBN). The local ACRS grid connects eight High Performance Computing Facilities in each Australian state, including the CSIRO, with a growing list of university cluster networks. Systems services manager Jim McGovern said a cloud model will provide users with better ease of use and more flexibility.

"For example, researchers will be able to package programs in a virtual machine and send them off to whatever facility is best suited to process [the data], but before that happens, we will continue unifying the resources so the many scientists who aren't in IT can easily use the network," McGovern said. "The cloud will be able to better utilise availability and schedule jobs to free processors".

University researchers will eventually be able to authorise with the network using their internal credentials through the Australian Access Federation, which also serves as an education medium for users.

The ARCS is planning to expand its international grid links that connect Australian and New Zealand researchers to the big European and US networks. McGovern says local processing capacity is sufficient but there is room for improvement in international research collaboration.

Expert opinion, however, is divided on the benefits of cloud over grid architecture. The European Infrastructure Reflection Group says even the best cloud offerings are not yet sophisticated enough to support complex grid-like use, and that research community "would be best served" with a mix of grid and cloud-based services. It further notes that grids are better equipped to handle large bursts of processing, while clouds are more suited to longer-running compute jobs. McGovern said the consumer sector will benefit from the experience of the grid operators in dealing with record network traffic levels, and the pressing need for interoperability developed without commercial pressures.

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