This week Microsoft announced a new tool using the Windows Azure cloud platform that will dramatically lower the barriers many researchers face accessing and generating life science data. This shift is not unlike that which occurred in the 1970s when the first personal computers were sold. Before then, computers used to be so big they filled entire rooms, and access to them was controlled through a schedule — it’s where the phrase “timeshare computing” came from. The PC era democratized access to computing by placing computers on people’s desks and in their homes, and today we have computing power in our pockets that dwarves those room-sized computers. However, in the scientific community the notion of shared access to computing lives on.

 

A comparison between the number of DNA base pairs on the NCBI database and the 2010 World Population as reported by the US Census Bureau.
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Due to the vast amounts of data researchers and scientists collect for much of their work, they often require the use of supercomputers to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges across academia, business and government. Given the costs, many in the research and scientific communities either don’t have access to or cannot afford supercomputers.

However, the cloud is beginning to democratize access to this type of computing power. The new free service, called National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) Basic Local Alignment Search Tool (BLAST) on Windows Azure will revolutionize the access independent or small research groups will have by providing simple desktop tools scientists and researchers can use to access and work with vast amounts of life science data —all hosted in the Windows Azure cloud by Microsoft. Using this service, scientists can now perform tasks that once would have required them to own or rent time with supercomputers, enabling them to continue their quests to answer some of the most challenging questions in science — all from their desktop. In essence, NCBI BLAST and the cloud will empower a single researcher or small team to access the same large-scale computing resources that a large, well-funded research organization can have — without the need to invest in purchasing and hosting their own computing capability.

With tools like this we’re helping to put supercomputing power in the hands of any researcher, anytime. By taking the cloud advancements we’ve made out of our labs and into the labs of the scientific community we’re not only showcasing the power of cloud technology, but how it can be used to help society. We believe that unleashing the power of the cloud in this way, on a global scale, can ignite a tidal wave of discovery and help solve some of the world’s biggest challenges.

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Media Coverage: Microsoft Gives the Cloud to Scientists

Posted by Steve Clayton
Microsoft Storyteller