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A Match Made in … the Cloud

San Diego Supercomputer Center, particle physics powerhouse CERN team up to help researchers manage public cloud computing

CloudBank user.

The San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC), a pioneer in advanced computation and data analytics, is teaming up with CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics famously associated with the discovery of the Higgs boson. The new international partnership leverages SDSC’s alliance with Strategic Blue, a UK-based Fintech company that helps organizations optimize procurement of cloud services.

SDSC and Strategic Blue help researchers in the US adopt their choice of cloud with fewer procurement challenges, while stretching their research dollars as far as possible. They do this with CloudBank, a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded service co-developed by SDSC at UC San Diego, UC Berkeley and the University of Washington. The team was awarded $5 million in funding from the NSF in 2019 to help researchers access and use public cloud computing resources.

“Public cloud has become an essential resource for computer science research and education, but with the rapid growth in the diversity of resource offerings, users increasingly encounter ‘pain points’ to adoption that limit the potential of these resources in their work,” said SDSC Director Michael Norman, principal investigator (PI) for CloudBank.

These “pain points” include administrative tasks like managing contracts, cost monitoring and cost efficiency, which take researchers away from time spent on their actual scientific work. So, CloudBank provides researchers with managed services that simplify cloud access for computer science research and education with a user portal, financial operations to ease accounting processes and help optimize the use of resources, and education and training classroom tools like workshops, videos, training materials and individual support.

After considering other national and international systems, CERN chose SDSC because of the significant advances it has made in working with researchers. João Fernandes, senior member of CERN staff and project leader in the CERN IT Department, is tasked with launching CloudBank Europe, which is supported by the Next Generation Internet (NGI) programme of the European Commission.

“We were motivated by the desire of our research teams to onboard commercial cloud for a set of challenging research use cases. So, we teamed up with SDSC to expand the CloudBank model at CERN, where researchers from all over the world collaborate,” Fernandes said. “We have seen increased needs for accessing cloud-based resources—in particular for Machine Learning as a Service (MLaaS), High-Performance Computing as a Service (HPCaaS) and Quantum Computing as a Service (QCaaS). The relative strengths of the cloud vendors wax and wane, so we really wanted to solve the procurement and governance challenges just once, and, at the same time, establish a sustainable cost-optimization process leveraging multiple public cloud service offerings.”

Fernandes said that CloudBank provides a model for dealing with procurement and cost-optimization challenges when using public cloud, which his team hopes to use as inspiration for CERN’s procurement strategy.

It was a demonstration of the CloudBank portal by SDSC’s Shava Smallen—given during a webinar hosted by Norman—that initially caught the attention of CERN’s cloud team, which will work with SDSC to adopt the CloudBank user portal at CERN.

“We’re excited to collaborate with CERN and support its efforts,” Smallen said. “Though the CloudBank portal was originally designed for NSF workflows, we have generalized our framework for multiple funders, and we look forward to CERN’s experience further driving improvements that benefit all CloudBank users.”

Strategic Blue’s CEO and founder James Mitchell said that his company’s role is to stretch the NSF’s research dollar and other funding in euros, Swiss francs or pounds as far as possible in the public cloud.

“We are working behind the scenes to provide researchers with the technical and financial support they need to keep within their budget, while leveraging the on-demand scalability the public cloud offers to researchers,” he said.

With a guarantee to be less expensive than buying directly from cloud vendors, together with the ability to enhance, not replace, negotiated cloud vendor agreements, Strategic Blue’s offering provides a solid foundation to researchers using CloudBank. According to Mitchell, it is the tailoring of the service to the research community and the development of the CloudBank portal, however, that sets CloudBank apart.

“CloudBank’s seamless login is very user-friendly,” said Deep Medhi, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering. “Along with its easy-to-use portal that provides a simple way to monitor cost of running public cloud services, CloudBank is very appealing to research users to manage their cloud cost.”

To learn more about SDSC’s CloudBank service, please visit the CloudBank website.

About San Diego Supercomputer Center

The San Diego Supercomputer Center at UC San Diego is considered a leader in advanced computation and all aspects of “Big Data,” which include data integration and storage, performance modeling, data mining and predictive analytics, software development and more. SDSC provides resources, services and expertise to the national research community including academia, industry and government. SDSC supports hundreds of multidisciplinary programs spanning a wide variety of domains, from astrophysics and bioinformatics to environmental sciences and health IT.


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