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December, 2013

Microsoft Research Connections Blog

The Microsoft Research Connections blog shares stories of collaborations with computer scientists at academic and scientific institutions to advance technical innovations in computing, as well as related events, scholarships, and fellowships.

December, 2013

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Resources abound for researchers wanting to use cloud computing

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    Cloud computing offers tremendous advantages in terms of scale and compute power—not to mention costs—to those grappling with today’s data-intensive research. The Windows Azure for Research program is designed to help scientists reap these cloud-computing benefits in their research work.

    As part of the program, our series of worldwide training seminars are now in full swing; we’ve hosted two-day, in-person training events in Cape Town, Paris, Zurich, Seoul, Guangzhou, Beijing, Campinas, and Seattle. If you couldn’t attend one of these events don’t despair: many more are planned across the globe.

    Helping scientists use cloud computing in their research

    In addition, we’ve released the training material online, along with a set of technical papers designed specifically to help researchers quickly get started with Windows Azure. These papers cover a range of topics, including application migration; best practices in scaling, compute, storage, web applications, and services; processing of big data; and utilization of high performance computing (HPC), Microsoft Excel, Microsoft business intelligence aids, and other open-source and Microsoft tools—all from a technical computing user’s perspective. We will also feature case studies of successful projects, to illustrate the architecture and technologies used to solve cloud-scale problems in various research fields.

    The information in these papers is applicable to Windows, Linux, and Mac operating systems. If you have attended the Windows Azure for Research training, have received an award through the RFP program, or are just curious about Windows Azure, we believe you will find this content useful.

    We suggest that you read the technical papers in order, starting with the overview. If you have applications you’d like to migrate to the cloud with minimum effort, we suggest you review Getting Started with Windows Azure Virtual Machines. If you want to contribute virtual machines (VMs) for your community, Using and Contributing Virtual Machines to VM Depot provides detailed instructions.

    Windows Azure provides the Windows Azure software development kit (SDK), and Python is now a first-class citizen in Visual Studio 2013. This powerful combination gives Python developers much needed features, including remote debugging even on Linux virtual machines. An Introduction to Using Python with Windows Azure explains how to place Python applications in the cloud.

    Windows Azure for Linux and Mac Users provides information to help non-Windows users get started with Windows Azure quickly. We’ve also included a guide for high performance computing on Windows Azure. The new Power Query and Power Map tools in Excel 2013 can now be used to analyze data from Windows Azure Storage; Visualization with Excel Tools and Windows Azure offers a detailed walk-through of a sample.

    In addition to these technical papers and the in-person training events, we also offer a three-part series of webinars on using Windows Azure cloud computing for research. The first two webinars have already aired, but you can watch them on demand: Accelerating Your Research with Windows Azure and Virtual Machines for Research on Windows Azure. The third webinar, Environmental Science on the Cloud with Windows Azure, will be streamed on December 17, 2013; tune in to learn how environmental scientists are using Windows Azure to easily collect, analyze, and share their data.

    Lastly, the Windows Azure for Research Award program, which provides grants of Windows Azure to qualified labs, is in high gear. The recipients of first round of grants were announced in early November, and we are fast approaching the December 15, 2013 deadline for submitting proposals for the second round of awards. But no need to panic: the program is ongoing, with submission deadlines on the fifteenth of every other month. Just remember, applicants must be affiliated with an academic institution or a nonprofit research laboratory to qualify. Learn more and apply for a research award on the proposal submission site.

    If you have questions or would like to suggest topics that we should cover, please let us know.

    —Wenming Ye, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Computer Science Education Week: "touching" on the Hour of Code

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    It’s time to revise the traditional “three Rs” of education in the United States. In addition to “reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic,” we need to add computer science. Yeah, I know it doesn’t even contain an “r,” but computer science is just as important as those fundamental “r” skills. And that brings me to the topic of this blog: Computer Science Education Week (CSEdWeek), an annual US event that stresses the need to teach computer science basics to every student. This year, CSEdWeek runs from December 9 to 15.

    "Touching" on the Hour of Code

    I am especially excited to work in partnership with Code.org, a new non-profit organization that initiated one of CSEdWeek’s prime events: the “Hour of Code.” The event aims to introduce 10 million students of all ages to computer science ideas and tools—and to let them try coding for one hour—while also demonstrating to parents, teachers, and policymakers how accessible coding can be. And at a deeper level, we hope it will drive demand for expanded computer science courses and activities in secondary schools.

    As part of CSEdWeek, I am in central Oregon at the Culver Middle School and Culver High School, introducing students to programming through an hour of coding by using TouchDevelop, a free Microsoft Research mobile application development tool. I’ll also host an all-school assembly on “How Computer Science Can Solve the World’s Greatest Challenges.”
     
    In addition, I get to spend a day devoted to my greatest passion: sparking young girls’ interest in computer science. I will meet with 93 Culver Middle School girls, introducing them to computer science research and the importance of user experience design. Too many young people only hear about the difficulty of programming; I strive to show them the art, creativity, and satisfaction involved in making an application that meets the end user’s needs. They’ll learn about the storyboarding process and how to design an application, and then they’ll help create the user interface for Games Learning Society, a research project I’m working on with Constance Steinkuehler at the University of Wisconsin. I will also give them a preview of a program we will announce this week—so stay tuned to learn about great partnerships and an event that will entice even more young women to pursue computer science careers.

    Kent Middle School students learn coding with help from Rane Johnson-Stempson during Computer Science Education Week.
    Middle school students learn coding with help from Rane Johnson-Stempson during Computer Science Education Week.

    Despite the excitement of CSEdWeek, my commitment to and passion for what it represents doesn’t begin and end during this week. Early last week, I met with 75 high school students from the Auburn (WA) Mountainview High School IT Academy Program and shared Kodu, .NET Gadgeteer, WorldWide Telescope, and other Microsoft Research technologies with them. They also learned about the exciting future of computing from bright young Microsoft employees who are in an accelerated career development program.

    Later in the month, I will head to Redmond (OR) Middle School to conduct a TouchDevelop programming event with all of the students and to introduce middle school girls to user experience design. And I’m not alone in this outreach effort; several of my Microsoft Research colleagues are also volunteering at elementary, middle, and high schools to excite students about computer science. Judith Bishop is in South Africa to expose students to TouchDevelop, and Arul Menezes, Krysta Svore, and Peli de Halleux are visiting Seattle-area middle and high schools to help students experience an hour of coding.

    Why is coding so important? The digital age has transformed how we work and live, making computer science and the technologies it enables central to our daily lives. By 2020, an estimated 4.6 million computer-related jobs will be available for those with skills in computer science—jobs that will address such issues as climate change, healthcare provision, and economic development. Unfortunately, many educational institutions in the United States have not been able to keep pace with technological advances, leaving students without fundamental computer science skills: of the more than 42,000 high schools in the United States, fewer than 3,250 were certified to teach advanced-placement computer science courses in 2013. Only 14 states count computer science courses toward a student’s graduation requirements in math and science, and no states require a computer science course as a condition of graduation. This must change if we want students from the United States to have future career opportunities in global computer science fields.

    By the way, you don’t have to work at Microsoft Research to be part of this effort: to learn about more free tools you can share with students to interest them in computing, visit Research tools.

    Rane Johnson-Stempson, Director, Education and Scholarly Communication, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Microsoft Research offers tools and more at AGU 2013 Fall Meeting

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    Every December I get together with 20,000 like-minded researchers in San Francisco to discuss how to preserve the habitat of Homo sapiens. I concede it’s a self-serving goal, but I’m okay with standing to benefit. Our conversation invariably burrows into subtopics of how the Earth works as a complex system because scientists agree: you can’t preserve a habitat until you understand it, and we need to make some progress on that front.

    Helping scientists overcome big data challenges at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting

    Enter Tony Hey, brandishing the Fourth Paradigm, a guidebook for working effectively in the burgeoning field of data-intensive science. I like to paraphrase the main premise of this new paradigm as follows: “Good for you, scientists, you’ve figured out how to get vast quantities of new data to help you better understand the Earth; but alas, you still need to build the analysis engines to actually make sense of the data!” Cue Microsoft Research and its contributions at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco from December 10 to 13. That’s the get-together I mentioned above.

    What will we—Microsoft Research—be doing on the trade show floor of San Francisco’s Moscone Center? Two things. First, we’ll be finding out what scientists are working on and what technical challenges they face in their work. Second, we’ll be offering them technology tools and resources to help them meet some of those challenges.

    In that pool of technologies, one of our best contributions this year comes via the Windows Azure for Research project, a grant program that presents researchers with a year of free cloud-computing resources. Windows Azure, the Microsoft public cloud platform, offers scalability, immense computational power needed to analyze big data, redundancy, freedom from IT maintenance tasks, many virtual machine options including categories of Linux, and quick-install website templates to help them share out results.

    At AGU, we will also present:

    • Layerscape, a research toolkit built around the WorldWide Telescope virtual globe visualization engine. Layerscape enables anyone to harness the GPU power of a PC to render 10 million data points evolving in time in geospatial, solar system, or abstract reference frames.
    • FetchClimate, a free service that quickly provides climate data and provenance across region, time, and data type parameters—from soil carbon to surface air temperature to precipitation and more.
    • DataUp, a web application that helps researchers share, document, and archive their data (and receive Digital Object Identifiers in exchange for publishing).
    • Distribution Modeller, a browser-based Bayesian inference engine for building ecological models.
    • Excel Power X and Office 365: The top 15 surprising/astounding things a researcher can do with Excel—from treating the web as a direct data source to using axis sliders for charts—and how Office365 is a powerful new way to get things done faster and with greater reliability.

    We will also be explaining how we help teachers and scientists use and develop world-changing technologies through grants, fellowships, and internships. As always, we’ll be happy to share our ideas on data-system confederation, data publication, and data sharing. We will also provide short talks on selected geoscience topics such as estimating snowpack water storage in the Hindu Kush by using computers and remote sensing, and how to get your code running on a Linux Virtual Machine in the Microsoft cloud.

    So that’s where we’ll be, from December 10 to 13, asking questions, explaining our tools and resources, and helping scientists make technology really work for them. And we love it. Nothing compares to the feeling of finding a scientist who needs something that we have and, even better, surprising him or her by explaining it’s available at little to no cost, aside from their time investment to learn the ropes.

    If you plan to attend the AGU Fall Meeting, please stop by our booth. But even if you aren’t going to be in San Francisco, you can find an overview of the tools and technologies described above on the AGU events page on the Microsoft Research website. And while you’re checking out these resources, you might be tempted to ask (as curious scientists do), “What’s in this for Microsoft?” That’s the easiest question of all, because when it comes to trying to preserve the habitat of Homo sapiens, the benefits of success are self-evident.

    Rob Fatland, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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