Ahead in the Cloud
CIO Thomson Guides NHLBI Into Off-Site Computing
Scientific data is not what it used to be. It used to come in megabytes and then gigabytes, but today terabytes and petabytes are becoming the norm and innovations in science seem to consume more bytes every day. That’s one reason Alastair Thomson, NHLBI chief information officer, and his NIH colleagues began looking to the cloud for IT resources.
“I remember back around 1992 or so I was ordering 1-gig servers and I thought, ‘How in the world will anyone ever use that much space?’” Thomson recalled. “Now we’ve got a new microscope going into Bldg. 14F that uses a massive amount of image data. We’re talking way past gigabytes or even terabytes these days.”
As technology gets more sophisticated, it also begins to require more resources to keep up with it.
Cloud computing—paying a third party to handle IT infrastructure off-site—has been around awhile, nearly two decades according to some estimates. In recent years, however, those in charge of providing IT resources for large organizations have increasingly investigated remote use of hardware, storage capacity, energy for electricity and cooling, speed and power.
“You’re only paying for what you actually need,” Thomson explained. “There’s a big advantage in that the cloud is elastic. You use only what you need when you need it. You don’t have to keep paying for energy and resources you’re not using. It helps drive down the costs so we can invest more in the really valuable resource—people’s brains.”
For its first forays into the cloud, NHLBI tested the waters with what Thomson called “mundane uses, internal applications” like the institute’s web site. Its move to the cloud was virtually seamless.
“When we relocated the web site, we called it the biggest change you didn’t see,” Thomson recalled. “It was completely transparent to outside users.”
One use of the cloud seemed to give rise to the next and the next. Thomson immediately calls to mind two successes in scientific research. “Once developers of an image reconstruction software called the ‘Gadgetron’ began tapping the cloud’s power [see sidebar] it became clear that there was real potential for new science using the cloud,” he pointed out.
Another application—involving big data—recently finished a pilot testing the cloud against traditional onsite computing [see sidebar].
Thanks to the success of the Gadgetron and other research, when approached with requests for more IT resources, Thomson now routinely steers investigators toward trying the cloud to meet scientific needs.
There When You Need It
Thomson and his colleagues also found the cloud to be a good alternative storage space for infrequently used data.
Once an investigator concludes a research study, he explained, and the data from the study is published, that PI most likely moves on to the next project and may not revisit the original data for months, years or ever. Still, the now-dormant data has to be properly stored for any potential reference, taking up valuable and expensive server capacity.
“We found that 80 percent of some of our data had not been accessed in 2 years,” Thomson said. “So, we will put it on the cloud, at half the cost of storage space in-house. Savings like that, it’s important to us.”
Soon some of NHLBI’s in-house applications such as the Tracking system for Requests And Correspondence or TRAC, currently running in the institute’s data center, will head to the cloud so they benefit from the high reliability and ability to support NHLBI’s continuity of operations plan.
That’s not to say computing via off-site contractor happened for Thomson overnight without worry. Concern for security of IT data, for example, was a big consideration. “That’s one reason I was hesitant to drive too fast too early,” he said.
However, FedRAMP, the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, relieved much of the worry. The government-wide program run by GSA keeps a list of about two dozen cloud providers that have all been vetted and deemed safe-for-use by federal agencies. Big name IT companies such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft all have cloud vendor products on FedRAMP’s list and therefore are well-equipped to tackle potential headaches—power outages or hack attempts, for example—that come with maintaining a large computing facility.
FedRAMP is not the whole story though and NHLBI’s IT security team works to conduct its own assessment and authorization process to ensure that the cloud meets NIH requirements.
“What we learned is, with the phenomenal amount of money cloud providers spend,” Thomson said, “there’s no way NIH could afford the same level of security they already have in place.”
Coming up next for Thomson and other agency CIOs is a presentation of their initial experiences with cloud computing that they will share during the NIH Research Festival.
Also on the horizon are more collaborations among ICs and additional pilots with other intramural researchers on such big data topics as genomics, connecting datasets from large populations and sharing such resources with scientists around the world.
“Everyone is moving this way at some speed,” Thomson said. “Everyone is at least considering it.”