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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.

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    Networked and distributed at SBRC

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    This year, the Brazilian Symposium on Computer Networks and Distributed Systems (SBRC 2014) is discussing, among other topics, cloud computing, which is a fantastic technology that provides new services and applications for users and helps accelerate research in different domains. Cloud computing is expected to become even more prominent in the coming years...

    —Antonio Alfredo Loureiro, full professor, Computer Science Department, Federal University of Minas Gerais

    Feng Zhao, assistant managing director of Microsoft Research AsiaI am happy to give a quick report following last week’s 2014 Brazilian Symposium on Computer Networks and Distributed Systems (better known by its Portuguese acronym: SBRC), one of the most prestigious events for the Brazilian computer science community. It was held May 5–9, in the seaside town of Florianópolis and included a range of topical workshops, panel discussions, and demos being delivered by internationally renowned researchers. The conference had 21 technical sessions covering just about every current issue related to computer networks and distributed systems.

    Daron Green, a senior director at Microsoft Research Connections in RedmondI’m pleased to note that Microsoft Research was among the sponsors of this conference and delivered two keynote presentations. Daron Green, a senior director at Microsoft Research Connections in Redmond, spoke on Living outside the Comfort Zone: Innovating through Research, an intriguing look into the future of collaborative computing technology and the role that Microsoft Research is playing in creating unique research opportunities, from highly configurable small-scale experimental devices to world-class cloud computing infrastructure. Feng Zhao, assistant managing director of Microsoft Research Asia, discussed Planet-Scale Sensing: from Lab to the Real World, which explored the major advances in sensor networks and their applications in such areas as energy consumption and urban planning.

    We also had a booth at SBRC, where, among other relevant Microsoft Research projects, we were sharing information about our Microsoft Azure for Research program, which offers free training on using Microsoft Azure for scientific research, as well as substantial grants of cloud-computing resources for winning research proposals. The program includes a special request for proposals for the Brazilian scientific community, with a submission deadline of June 15. You can learn more about the program, including information on the RFP for the Brazilian scientific community at Microsoft Azure for Research.

    The Microsoft booth at SBRC shared information about the Microsoft Azure for Research program, among other Microsoft Research projects
    The Microsoft booth at SBRC shared information about the Microsoft Azure for Research program, among other Microsoft Research projects.

    The SBRC comes on the heels of Microsoft’s deployment of a datacenter in São Paolo, Brazil. This new facility gives Brazilian researchers a faster connection to Microsoft Azure’s highly scalable compute platform. Such local availability has resonated well with SBRC delegates—particularly those attending the Azure training we’ve offered as part of the conference—as they have seen virtual machines and storage provisioned for the first time in-country. At times, the Microsoft booth was swamped by attendees wishing to talk to us about how best to use Microsoft’s cloud and, of course, to pick up a cool Azure for Research T-shirt.

    —Juliana Salles, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Computer science takes center stage in Chile

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    Where would you look to find new approaches to solving today’s economic, scientific, and social problems? If you answered Viña del Mar, Chile, from today through May  9, you’re right—as that’s where and when more than 250 thought leaders are gathered for the Microsoft Research Latin American Faculty Summit 2014. The attendees come from academia, government, and Microsoft Research, and represent an array of disciplines, including computer science, engineering, mathematics, and economics.

    Latin American Faculty Summit 2014: furthering innovations for economic and social development

    The theme of this year’s summit is “advancing science and technology through computing research.” To fulfill this ambitious objective, the participants are exploring the role of computing in modern research—especially in handling the data deluge that typifies much of today’s research, as well as the importance of computer science education, the emergence of what’s been called the “internet of things,” and the promise of machine learning. They are also examining trends in social computing and the use of computing in studying urban problems.

    Managing Director of Microsoft Research India, P. Anandan; Vice President of Microsoft Research, Tony Hey; Faculty Fellow Award Recipient, Carolina Fuentes; Chile’s Ministro de Economía, Luis Felipe Céspedes; GM of Microsoft Chile, Oliver Flogel; and Microsoft Research Faculty Summit Co-Chair, Jaime Puente
    Pictured from left to right: Managing Director of Microsoft Research India, P. Anandan; Vice President of Microsoft Research, Tony Hey; PhD Fellow Award Recipient, Carolina Fuentes; Chile’s Ministro de Economía, Luis Felipe Céspedes; GM of Microsoft Chile, Oliver Flogel; and Microsoft Research Faculty Summit Co-Chair, Jaime Puente

    The event is held in partnership with Chile’s Ministry of Economics, and, as befits one of Latin America’s premier computer-science conferences, the summit will pay particular attention to regional challenges. Microsoft Research has long been involved in this part of Latin America, given that Chile serves as the management hub for Latin American and Caribbean Collaborative ICT Research (LACCIR), a joint research center of Microsoft Research and top-tier Latin American universities. In fact, it was introduced in 2007, during the very first Latin America Faculty Summit, which was also held at Viña del Mar.

    Tony Hey delivers his keynote on Data-Driven Computing
    Tony Hey delivers his keynote on Data-Driven Computing

    The three-day program features speeches, talks, workshops, panel discussions, and a DemoFest. The keynote addresses cover a variety of topics, including:

    • Computing and astronomy, with a focus on ALMA (the world’s largest radio telescope) and astronomical visualizations via Microsoft Research’s WorldWide Telescope
    • Big data, machine learning, and social computing
    • Twenty-first–century education and the need to inspire the next generation of computer scientists
    • Mobile and cloud computing
    • The importance of technology in preparing for natural disasters
    • The role of research in driving innovation

    We’re looking forward to three stimulating days, filled with exchanges between people who are intent on using science and technology to make the world a better place.

    Jaime Puente, Director, Microsoft Research Latin America

    Evelyne Viegas, Director of Semantic Computing, Microsoft Research Redmond

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    Reproducible research: are we there yet?

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     “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
    —Sir Isaac Newton

    Standing on the shoulders of giants is a metaphor we often use to describe how research advances. More than an aphorism, it is a mindset that we ingrain in students when they start graduate school: take the time to understand the current state of the art before attempting to advance it further. Having to justify why you have reinvented the wheel during your PhD defense is not a comfortable situation to be in. Moreover, the value of truly reproducible research is reinforced every time a paper is retracted because its results cannot be reproduced, or every time that promising academic research—such as pursuit of important new drugs—fails to meet the test of reproducibility.

    Is your research reproducible?

    Of course, to truly learn from work that has preceded yours, you need access to it. How can you build on the latest research if you don’t know its details? Thankfully, open access (OA) is making it easier to find research papers, and  Microsoft Research is committed to OA. Though it’s a good start, OA articles only contain words and pictures. What about the data, software, input parameters, and everything else needed to reproduce the research?

    While research software provides the potential for better reproducibility, most people agree that we are some way from achieving this. It’s not just a matter of throwing your source code online. Even though tools such as GitHub provide excellent sharing and versioning, it is up to the researcher or developer to make sure the code cannot only be re-run but also understood by others. There are still technical issues to overcome, but the social ones are even harder to tackle. The development of scientific software and researchers’ selection of which software to use and reuse are all intertwined. We at Microsoft Research are concerned with this—see “Troubling Trends in Scientific Software” in the May 17, 2013, issue of Science magazine.

    Kenji Takeda talks about reproducible research and the cloud at CW14. Photo: Tim Parkinson, CC-BY
    Kenji Takeda talks about reproducible research and the cloud at CW14.
    Photo: Tim Parkinson, CC-BY

    This year’s Collaboration Workshop (CW14), run by the Software Sustainability Institute (SSI), brought together likeminded innovators from a broad spectrum of the research world—researchers, software developers, managers, funders, and more—to explore the role of software in reproducible research. This theme couldn’t have been timelier, and I was excited to take part in this dynamic event again with a talk on reproducible research and the cloud. The “unconference” format—where the agenda is driven by attendees’ participation—was perfect for exploring the many issues around reproducible research and software. So, too, was the eclectic make-up of the attendees, so unlike that at more conventional conferences.

    Hack Day winners receive Windows 8.1 tablets for Open Source Health Check. Hack Day winners receive Windows 8.1 tablets for Open Source Health Check. Left to right: Arfon Smith (GitHub), Kenji Takeda (Microsoft Research), James Spencer (Imperial College), Clyde Fare (Imperial College), Ling Ge (Imperial College), Mark Basham (DIAMOND), Robin Wilson (University of Southampton), Neil Chue-Hong (Director, SSI), Shoaib Sufi (SSI)

    Instead of leaving after two days, many participants stayed on for Hack Day—a hackathon that challenged them to create real solutions to problems surfaced at the workshop. Eight team leaders had to pitch their ideas to the crowd, as the researchers and software developers literally voted with their feet to join their favorite team. The diversity of ideas was impressive, such as scraping the web to catalogue scientific software citations, extending GitHub to natively visualize scientific data, and assessing research code quality online. We made sure that teams were able to use Microsoft Azure to quickly set up websites, Linux virtual machines, and processing back-ends to build their solutions.

    Arfon Smith from GitHub and I served as judges, and we had a tough time choosing a winning project. After much back-and-forth, we awarded the honor to the Open Source Health Check team, which created an elegant and genuinely usable service that combines some of the best practices discussed during the workshop. Their prototype runs a checklist on any GitHub repository to make sure that it incorporates the critical components for reproducibility, including documentation, an explicit license, and a citation file. The team worked furiously to implement this, including deploying it on Microsoft Azure and integrating it with the GitHub API, to demonstrate a complete online working system.

    Recomputation.org aims to make computational experiments easily reproducible decades into the future.
    Recomputation.org aims to make computational experiments easily reproducible decades into the future.

    In addition to our role at CW14, Microsoft Research is delighted to be supporting teams working on new approaches to scientific reproducibility as part of our Microsoft Azure for Research program:

    • Recomputation.org is focused on taking advantage of virtual machines to preserve software experiments. By packaging up a researcher’s entire experimental setup in a VM, it becomes trivial to replicate their work. Once these VMs have been uploaded to VMDepot, it takes just a few mouse clicks to call up the complete experiment in Microsoft Azure, log in, and rerun the research. From there, it is possible to drill down and dissect the work, extend it, and then share a new version online. It’s a great collaboration with the Software Sustainability Institute, and the cloud provides an ideal environment for this platform.
    • Patrick Henaff, of IAE de Paris, is working with Zeliade Systems on enhanced IPython notebooks shared via the cloud at zanadu.io. Their vision for social coding around reproducible software tackles some of the cultural issues by allowing researchers to easily share, discover, and reuse their work in an executable way.
    • Titus Brown, of Michigan State University, is conducting pioneering work on open biological science, open protocols, and provenance-preserving analyses in the cloud. His pilot project uses publicly available data from the Marine Eukaryotic Transcriptome Sequencing Project to move processing workflows into Microsoft Azure in a reproducible way, allowing researchers to tweak and remix their analyses.

    While we still have not achieved truly reproducible research, CW14 proved that the community is dedicated to improving the situation, and cloud computing has an increasingly important role to play in enabling reproducible research.

    Kenji Takeda, Solutions Architect and Technical Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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