For researchers, high-performance cloud computing now a reality

For scientists and researchers whose high-density data requirements make traditional, limited-capacity cloud storage an inconvenience, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has an alternative.

At the GovCloud 2011 conference on Oct. 25, representatives from the Energy Department laboratory spoke about their work developing a high-performance computing cloud service as an alternative to the kind of services that Amazon offers businesses. The laboratory's service is a private cloud that provides hardware, software and parallel computing capability designed to appeal to a broad scientific community.

"We have essentially bridged this gap between the infrastructure and the use applications," said Gary Jung, the laboratory's high-performance computing manager.

The laboratory, which conducts unclassified research for the Energy Department and is managed and operated by the University of California, employs 4,000 workers on-site and another 4,000 off-site. When managers first started looking into Amazon's cloud computing service, there was a clear obstacle: The objectives of enterprise computing are efficiency and consolidation, reducing all usage down to as little computing space as possible. In contrast, high-performance computing applies large amounts of resources to solve big, complex problems. Trying to use Amazon's services for high-performance computing resulted in computing speeds sometimes as much as 60 times slower than regular speeds.

The solution was to develop an easy, cheap alternative, which the lab was able to do by subsidizing the service with government funds. It charges a bare-bones rate of 1 cent per computing hour versus the 20 cents Amazon charges.

"There's a philosophical decision to move in that direction, to provide a subsidy for scientific computing," said laboratory Chief Information Officer Rosio Alvarez. "Our mission is to provide scientific computing for [researchers], and not make money."

Amazon has noted this expanding market for high-performance cloud computing and is developing a similar service.