Like many other top IT executives in the public and private sectors, a CIO at the National Institutes of Health, Alastair Thomson, is guiding his agency’s staff toward the cloud.

  • Science is Getting Bigger
  • Big Data Fueling Push toward Cloud at NHLBI
  • The Power of Invisibility
  • Hello, I’m Available
  • Security as a Priority

Science is Getting Bigger

Science is ballooning. According to two bibliometric researchers, Ruediger Mutz of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Lutz Bornmann of Germany’s Max Planck Society, the amount of published science is growing at 8-9% per year. “That equates to a doubling of global scientific output roughly every nine years,” explains the British journal Nature. “Bornmann and Mutz find that global scientific output has probably kept up this dizzying rate of increase since the end of World War II.”

Publication is of course not the only way science is growing, as CIOs at science-oriented organizations are reminded on an everyday basis by the scope of their projects. The data used for research used to be discussed in terms of megabytes, then gigabytes. Today, it’s typical for a project to be working at the level of terabytes or petabytes.

Just look at the growth of data worldwide as an indicator. In 2014, IDC predicted that the amount of data would expand 10-fold by 2020, increasing from 4.4 zettabytes to 44 zettabytes. As a refresher, 44 zettabytes is 44 trillion gigabytes. The digital world will grow 40% annually during that period, doubling every two years. (We shouldn’t get too impressed with ourselves, though, because the number of digital pieces we’ll have even then will still be less than the number of stars in the sky.)

Lucas Mearian of ComputerWorld suggests looking at that data another way: by the end of the decade, there will be 5200 GB of data per person worldwide.

Big Data Fueling Push toward Cloud at NHLBI

Alastair Thomson, the CIO of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI, part of the National Institutes of Health), says that he’s increasingly using cloud hosting because the demand for power is so high.

Hosting via third parties has been around essentially since the late 90s, but the rise of cloud computing (virtualization of servers across many different machines for better performance) has been especially attractive to prominent IT officials. It’s strengths include a better ability to control costs, immediate scalability, and incredible reliability – with the last trait due in part to its easily accessible spare capacity. These attributes are compelling, but motivation to adopt cloud was boosted in the federal government further because of the 2010 Cloud-First policy released by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Thomson likes the cloud because of its elasticity. “You don’t have to keep paying for energy and resources you’re not using,” he says. “It helps drive down the costs so we can invest more in the really valuable resource—people’s brains.”

The Power of Invisibility

The NHLBI initially tried out the cloud by using it on internal apps. Then they moved the website, although no one could see what was happening. There were no hiccups as the agency made the leap.

Following the first cloud project, it was a sort of domino effect. One big project was an image reconstruction application named Gadgetron. As the development team for that software started working with cloud, Thomson and others in leadership could more easily see how useful the technology is for science.

Another project actually looked directly at cloud against legacy systems, a direct analysis of which one was more reliable. The conclusion was that cloud was more reliable simply because it was so easy to access (immediately) in comparison to on-site HPC systems.

Hello, I’m Available

The team at the NHLBI additionally realized cloud was a wise place to store data that wasn’t readily needed.

Old scientific data is critical to retain, but that storage can get heavy in a legacy situation.

Part of the transition for cloud involved assessing how often various data stores were being used. When looking at some of its data, NHLBI found that 80 percent had not been tapped once in two years. “So, we will put it on the cloud, at half the cost of storage space in-house,” says Thomson. “Savings like that, it’s important to us.”

Now convinced of the cloud’s value and better prepared to embrace it, Thomson is planning to move other legacy software to cloud, such as the NHLBI’s TRAC (Tracking system for Requests and Correspondence) portal.

Security as a Priority

Thomson was a little hesitant before he moved forward with cloud hosting because, like many in government and other fields, he was concerned about security.

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