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A foggy future for cloud computing?

Computing in the cloud could be seductive for scientists and engineers, but in his first report from the ISC Cloud conference, Tom Wilkie finds that there are still problems to be overcome.

Wolfgang Gentzsch is certain, both when writing in Scientific Computing World and in his talk to the ISC Cloud conference in Heidelberg at the end of September: the Cloud is the way to entice all those scientists and engineers who are still wedded to their workstations (about 95 per cent of them) to embrace the advantages of high-performance computing.

Michael Resch, who runs the Stuttgart supercomputing centre, worries about the obstacles – and they come in the form of lawyers, taxmen, accountants, and politicians, he told the conference.

So much promise. But, rather as literal clouds are high in the sky, so ascending to ‘the cloud’ can be hard for scientists and engineers.

The independent software vendors, which make the programs that scientists and engineers would like to use in the cloud, are not sure how they can licence their software for such an environment. As Felix Wolfheimer of CST remarked, in a moment of candour: ‘There is a lot of fear in the sales department about opening up the licencing model’ so that software licences will be flexible enough for use in the cloud.

And Brian Sparks from Mellanox summed up the security concerns succinctly and directly: if celebrities can have nude photos of themselves uploaded into the cloud without them really realising that that was happening – until the security of the cloud is hacked and the pictures displayed to any voyeur with a web browser – what commercial company is going to trust their intellectual property to the cloud?

Plenty, according to David Pellerin, Business Development Principal, High Performance Cloud Computing, at Amazon Web Services. He told the meeting that the pharmaceutical company Bristol Meyers Squibb had loaded data from clinical trials on to AWS. ‘This is sensitive data – security and compliance are important,’ he assured his audience. A second instance from the life sciences was Illumina, which had created ‘BaseSpace’ in the cloud into which human genome sequences were being uploaded, as part of the general trend towards personalised medicine. Pfizer and Novartis both were moving to the cloud, he continued, with Pfizer running molecular modelling problems on AWS – an area about which pharmaceutical companies are usually extremely sensitive, since their molecular models betray information about which compounds they are researching and which new chemical entities they think might be suitable candidate drugs.

The move to carry out scientific computing in the cloud is not confined to the life sciences and pharmaceutical industries, there are examples from oil and gas sector as well. Pellerin cited Stochastic Simulation, an Australian company that provides specialist modelling software and services to the oil and gas industry. The company, headquartered in Perth, Western Australian, has developed robust and extremely fast software for simulating reservoirs to estimate how much oil or gas can be extracted. Much of the work is done on the cloud, according to Pellerin.

However, Thomas Goepel from HP, pointed out that commercial perceptions of data security are not the sole factors and not even the over-riding factors. Different national laws and attitudes could constrain the use of the cloud, he pointed out. One US company had carried out genomic analyses, using individuals’ data, on the public cloud in the USA relatively uncontroversially, but it became a huge issue when the company moved to do something similar using data from people in China and Europe. It had to build new solutions and create a cloud within China to hold the Chinese data, for example. Goepel told the meeting that although the cloud was attractive to small to medium-sized companies that could not afford a cluster, he felt that high-performance computing was more reluctant to go into the cloud than enterprise computing.

The next article in this series will look at one of the economic barriers to cloud computing for HPC – the divergent software licencing policies of the Independent Software Vendors (ISVs).

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