Last updated on November 17th, 2023 at 9:38am
We live in an age where it seems like everything is “cloud-based.” The cloud is everywhere, and every hot, new software tool or platform runs on the cloud. But how has this shift to cloud-based technologies affected researchers, and what do they stand to gain? I hope to highlight how the cloud offers many benefits for researchers and can change the way they conduct research for the better.
What Is the Public Cloud?
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s define the cloud for the sake of this article. Microsoft, on its Azure website, offers this definition:
“The public cloud is defined as computing services offered by third-party providers over the public Internet, making them available to anyone who wants to use or purchase them. They may be free or sold on-demand, allowing customers to pay only per usage for the CPU cycles, storage, or bandwidth they consume.”
This is a fundamental shift from an on-premises data center or private cloud because it grants access to powerful computing resources and services without purchasing, managing, and maintaining on-premises hardware and application infrastructure. Maintaining hardware and application infrastructure is the responsibility of a public cloud provider like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Azure, or Google Cloud. Customers can then pay to leverage cloud providers’ services and focus solely on building applications and benefits on those platforms and infrastructure.
Cloud computing is typically divided into three types of service. Software-as-a-service (SaaS), Platform-as-a-service (PaaS), and infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS). SaaS models provide applications and software on a pay-as-you-go basis. PaaS provides the development tools necessary to design applications within the cloud infrastructure. IaaS allows users to leverage the power of high-performance computing through the cloud provider. Because of the access and scale the cloud providers offer for each of these services, they all offer tremendous benefits for research institutions.
The cloud provides flexibility for acquiring expensive applications, gives every institution access to powerful computing technology, and makes massive datasets accessible to researchers worldwide.
Added Flexibility to Procure Expensive Software
Software for research is highly specialized and expensive. Under a licensing model, a research institution must pay the cost for a software license entirely upfront. The SaaS model adds flexibility by offering a pay-as-you-go model, which can be cheaper or lower the initial cost to allow smaller institutions access to capabilities and technology that might have been too expensive to procure.
The PaaS models provide researchers with even greater access to specialized tools by providing the environment to design applications themselves using the cloud provider’s infrastructure. For example, researchers can now use cloud-based Laboratory Information Management Systems, Electronic Lab Notebooks, and Chromatography Data Systems.
Another good example of PaaS solutions assisting research is in the biomedical field. There is a cloud-based tool for almost every facet of biomedical research: from medical imaging to electrophysiology to mass spectrometry. Without the PaaS services offered from the cloud, it wouldn’t be possible to develop these solutions or make them available to the research community.
A Key to the World’s Largest Datacenter
IaaS is possibly the use case with the broadest appeal – rather than offering specialized applications, IaaS makes high-performance computing resources available to any scientist who might need them. Essentially IaaS gives every researcher the key to the world’s largest data center. Lowering the barrier to entry for powerful computational resources has two significant implications for the research community. First, this opens the door to big data projects, which are increasingly crucial across science. For example, a single whole genome sequence is 100 gigabytes of data. The time needed to analyze this amount of data using classic computing methods is impractical. Instead, research teams can take the load off their infrastructure and put it into high-performance infrastructure in the cloud. This has made it possible for researchers to leverage datasets that would previously have been too unwieldy in-house.
The second significant impact of IaaS platforms is the democratization of science. Formerly, big data projects were only possible for large research institutes to undertake. While those institutions can still acquire powerful in-house tech, cloud computing offers the same or greater infrastructure to much smaller institutions. If you don’t have the budget to purchase expensive hardware, you are no longer precluded from conducting the experiments you need to.
Makes Large Datasets Available Worldwide
Before researchers can benefit from cloud-based analytics applications and use cloud-based supercomputers, researchers need access to data – typically massive quantities of data. The cloud is increasingly important in providing access to that data. Genomics research is one of the areas where these benefits are most apparent. Large-scale genomics projects, such as 1000 Genomes, have made themselves available on the public cloud via the AWS Marketplace. To illustrate the significance of hosting these large datasets in the cloud, researchers involved in the Pan Cancer Analysis of Whole Genomes detailed the impact of the NIH’s database of Genotypes and Phenotypes being made available in the public cloud in a recent Nature comment piece:
“Using a typical university Internet connection, it would take more than 15 months to transfer a data set this size from its repository into a researcher's local network of connected computers. And the hardware needed to store, let alone process the data, would cost around US$1 million.”
They further enumerate that because of the cloud, “…the analysis of a big genome data set that might have previously taken months can be executed in days or weeks.”
Massive amounts of data previously inaccessible are available for researchers natively in the public cloud. And it can be shared with teams around the world. Cloud technologies are the best way to store, share, and download big data.
Cloud Enablement for Research Institutions
For researchers to realize the benefits of the public cloud, institutions need a way to operate the cloud so that researchers have native, unimpeded access to the resources and services to perform their research - and mitigate financial, security, and compliance risks for the institution. Having the keys to the world’s largest data center is a boon for researchers and a vast ocean of unseen risks for institutions.
Kion has assisted research institutions in adopting the cloud by creating a framework to scale confidently in the cloud. Institutions with Kion have complete visibility and control of their cloud spend, get native access to the cloud, control access to resources, and satisfy compliance requirements to ensure security and assist in qualifying for new grants and funding.