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Seattle’s Growing Advantage in The Cloud


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when they say “cloud.” For Microsoft, the cloud has computers running Windows and something much like SQL server. The pain of porting existing Windows programs is minimal (or at least minimized), and it might even be practical to dynamically move applications from a local environment into the cloud and back, as demand requires. Furthermore, Microsoft expands the concept of “cloud” to include resources an organization owns and operates, that are shared within that organization only.

Amazon’s cloud, in contrast, runs standard (and mostly open source) services like Linux and Hadoop. Porting applications that already use these standards to Amazon is straightforward, but Amazon doesn’t appear interested in resources outside of their operation centers. Amazon views themselves as a compute utility with a scale-driven price advantage. Amazon doesn’t have an opinion on what you run locally. For Amazon, a “private cloud” is a dedicated cloud run on Amazon’s equipment, that you access via a VPN.

To parody these positions, Microsoft’s cloud is exactly like your current Windows computer, except you never have to install new software; Amazon’s cloud is whatever you want it to be, so long as it runs on Amazon’s hardware.

These differing viewpoints will have a profound effect on computational biology. Will computational biology influence the future of cloud computing? I think it’s likely. One reason cloud vendors ought to encourage computational biology as a model is because it’s likely more profitable than most other big services, for two reasons: availability and latency. Computational biologists can afford to wait, sometimes for quite a long time, without serious consequences, and they can often afford to redo the occasional computation that fails. Businesses like Facebook and FarmVille can’t afford to wait or start over, because lost ad impressions are lost forever. Science is thus a desirable cloud customer, and so cloud vendors are being rational when they court scientists and hold their work up as an example to others.

So what do scientists want? Mostly what everyone wants: more for less. The danger for Microsoft is, science is often a place where Microsoft is not well accepted. If there’s a danger for Amazon, it lies in scientists’ preference for vibrant marketplaces (of goods as well as ideas). Will scientific computing force Microsoft to be more open, yet ultimately strengthen their hand against Amazon as the cloud computing market grows? It’s too soon to know, but it will be fun to watch. At the least, scientists in Seattle will enjoy unique access to the people who are building the computers of the future.

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Erik Nilsson is president of Seattle-based Insilicos, a biotech company developing diagnostics for cardiovascular disease. He will address the topic of this article at a WBBA Healthcare IT Panel on August 25, 2010, at the Microsoft Conference Center in Redmond. Follow @

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  • Great point on the convergence of two seemingly disparate but very related markets. Next-gen sequencing continues to expand data generation capabilities faster than almost anyone can handle. Leveraging the cloud is the only way to manage the growing volume of data without spending ungodly amounts on hardware. My company is completely committed to the cloud. Why? A genomic assembly project was running on our modest hardware setup, 20 hours in and 20% complete. That was ridiculous. So we stopped the job, set up a high powered instance on AWS and it was done in a couple of hours! That is worth the $3.50 of compute time and then some.

  • Thanks for the comment, Nathan. That’s a great success story of moving bio applications to the cloud.

    This points out an important, often overlooked difference between cloud computing and old-school time-share computing: there is minimal bureaucracy between users and the cloud. Timeshare typically allocated scarce resources via a bureaucratic process. In the cloud, anybody with $5 can be the IT manager of their own massive compute facility, at least for a little while.

    The implications are mostly good, although there are obviously some aspects to this scenario that should give us pause.

  • I’ve spent a lot of time using all of the cloud platforms and have to say Amazon wins, they take care of everyone from the mom and pop shops that might need a simple website right through to enterprise. As you’re probably aware Netflix is one of the largest, most successful worldwide deployments on the Amazon cloud but do you have any examples of similar operations on Azure?