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Microsoft Research’s Windows Azure for Research program, which features a continuing series of Windows Azure cloud training events and a program of Windows Azure research grants, has been going strong since its launch in September 2013. As the December 15, 2013, deadline for the second round of grant proposals approached, we braced ourselves for a barrage of creative ideas. We weren’t disappointed, receiving proposals from every continent (well, except Antarctica). The response was particularly strong from such countries as Brazil and China, where our recent training events gave researchers an excellent, hands-on view of the capabilities of Windows Azure.
Several strong research themes that had emerged in the first round of proposals continued in the second round. Specifically, the life sciences and the emerging field of urban science were abundantly represented. Both themes can be thought of as big data topics, but they are really part of what we call the fourth paradigm of science, which is about discovering new scientific principles through deep analysis of massive amounts of data.Urban science, which can be described as an interdisciplinary mash-up of computer science and social science, is becoming an important tool for city planners. By using the real-time data that a typical modern city generates, they can gain a better understanding how to improve life for the city’s inhabitants. The cloud is ideally suited to collecting, filtering, analyzing, and sharing these data. A set of related topics that came on strong in the second-round proposals involved environmental science, ecology, and geosciences. Again, the common theme is using Windows Azure on the Microsoft cloud for data collection, analysis, and dissemination. In addition to such fourth-paradigm ideas, we received a large number of excellent computer science proposals that rely on the scale of the cloud to experiment with new algorithms and database topics. Selecting the winning proposals was extremely difficult, as we can fund only a fraction of the submissions. Nonetheless, we persevered and winnowed the proposals down to the grant recipients listed, by lead author and project title, at the bottom of this blog. The order might appear random, but trust me, there’s a logic to it (hint: take a look at the alphabetical order of the country names). You can review abstracts for these proposals at Windows Azure for Research. As a reminder, the next deadline for proposals is February 15, 2014. We encourage potential applicants to attend one of our training events or, if that’s not possible, to study the training material we’ve posted online. You can find a schedule of upcoming training events and the aforementioned training materials at Cloud Research Projects. —Dennis Gannon, Director of Cloud Research Strategy, Microsoft Research Connections
Second-round Windows Azure for Research Award recipients:
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These days, much is made of applications that run in the metaphorical cloud. Well, here's an example of hardware and software that soared through the clouds, both real and metaphorical. On March 4, the ASTRA 7, a stratospheric gas balloon carrying a mobile phone running the Windows Phone 7 operating system, was launched from the Cotswolds in west-central England. The hardy phone made its way through the real clouds and into the stratosphere, recording and sending location data that was processed through the virtual cloud of Windows Azure. Part of the University of Southampton's ASTRA (Atmospheric Science Through Robotic Aircraft) initiative, the launch was designed to test the capabilities of the Windows 7 mobile computing platform in capturing, analyzing, and transmitting location data from unmanned vehicles in the upper atmosphere.
The phone's logger application included a "hunter mode," which allowed ASTRA staff on the ground to track the payload during its flight, thus enabling its recovery. The application uses Bing Maps to display the location of the balloon payload, the hunter's phone, the locations of the other hunters, as well as the predicted landing location, which was constantly re-computed in the cloud by Windows Azure as new location reports beamed down from the on-board phone.
The ASTRA 7 reached a maximum altitude of 18,237 meters during a flight of 1 hour 16 minutes, soaring deep into the stratosphere, where the ambient pressure was less than 10 percent of its sea level value and the temperature dropped to -58 C. The maximum speed reached by ASTRA 7 was approximately 145 kilometers per hour, logged at an altitude of 10.1 kilometers as the balloon traversed the jet stream. ASTRA 7 landed about 75 kilometers downrange—very close to the pre-flight prediction based on the ASTRA balloon flight simulation model. ASTRA 7 also took more than 1,200 photos during its flight, a small selection of which are included in this blog.
The phone and the rest of the equipment were protected by a high-grade cell-foam enclosure to ensure the reliable operation of the on-board electronics in the extreme environmental conditions of the upper atmosphere. The enclosure was manufactured by using a computer-controlled laser cutter at the university's Engineering Design and Manufacturing Centre. As part of the payload bay's development process, the ASTRA team tested the foam enclosure in a vacuum chamber to ensure that its mechanical properties would be satisfactory in the extremely low-pressure environment of the stratosphere.
On March 8, ASTRA launched a longer flight to see how the technology would cope with more prolonged exposure to stratospheric conditions. The payload, consisting of a Windows Phone 7, battery, and camera, remained airborne for approximately 2 hours 40 minutes, covering about 110 kilometers in the process.
ASTRA scientists are extremely pleased with the performance of the Windows 7 package, which fits perfectly with the initiative's goal of developing and testing platforms capable of delivering scientific instruments via unmanned vehicles to altitudes ranging from the planetary boundary layer to the upper stratosphere. Dr. András Sóbester, leader of the ASTRA initiative, summed it up nicely: "We are excited that this constitutes a unique opportunity to collect important data that will give new insight into how the upper atmosphere affects Earth's climate and environment, using affordable technology."
—Geoff Hughes, Academic Strategy Advisor, Microsoft UK Developer Platform Evangelism
On April 19 and 20, the Microsoft Biology Initiative welcomed a small, focused group to the Microsoft Biology Foundation Workshop 2011, held at the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The workshop was a clinic in the use of the Microsoft Biology Foundation (MBF), an open-source Microsoft .NET library and application-programming interface for bioinformatics research.
Attendees included representatives from BASF Plant Science, SRA International, and the University of North Carolina. The two-day workshop covered the basics of MBF, as well as more advanced topics, such as scalability and the new features in the beta 1 release of MBF version 2.0. (The full release of version 2.0 is planned for this summer.)
Mark Smith, our workshop instructor, did a great job of presenting the material and engaging the audience, which included participants with a variety of programming backgrounds. Attendees loved the code-along sessions, as well as the great introduction to Microsoft .NET Framework programming! Not surprisingly, there was considerable interest in the launch of our MBF coding contest, where one lucky winner will receive an Xbox 360 with Kinect. Workshop samples, including slides and hands-on labs, are available on the Microsoft Biology Training page.
Participant input will help us make future MBF workshops more valuable. Here’s a sampling of participants’ feedback:
What did you enjoy most about the workshop?
What would you suggest we change/improve?
How are you using MBF or planning to use MBF?
We will host a two-day MBF Workshop in Cartagena, Colombia, May 16 and 17, 2011. We are also planning a workshop in Brisbane, Australia, July 7 and 8, during the 2011 Winter School in Mathematical and Computational Biology; I will post details once they’ve been finalized. Additional workshops are in the planning stage; we will announce the dates and sites when they are finalized.
In the meantime, we encourage you to get involved in the MBF project. You can join the project and download source code from the Microsoft Biology Foundation CodePlex site. If you discover a problem, please report it under the Issue Tracker tab; if you have a question or suggestion, use the Discussions tab.
—Simon Mercer, Director of Health and Wellbeing Microsoft Research Connections