Grand Challenge: Exploring the power of cloud computing for research partnerships

Amazon Web Services. Google. IBM. Microsoft. These are just a few of the major tech movers and shakers partnering with researchers and “big data” providers—recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—to invest in a new way of supporting a data-enabled economy: cloud computing. 

The advantages and opportunities that come with working in the cloud are potentially significant for researchers, especially in terms of multidisciplinary collaboration, something CU Boulder’s Earth Lab team discovered firsthand after entering a cooperative research partnership with DigitalGlobe last September. The agreement allows Earth Lab researchers to access and work through DigitalGlobe’s 80-petabyte, cloud-based library of high-resolution satellite imagery, data and analytics tools. 

The ease of access to powerful data on such a massive scale has proven a key catalyst as Earth Lab works to advance Earth and space science research alongside other pillars of CU Boulder’s Grand Challenge. The experience has sparked an inevitable question: How might cloud computing enhance and streamline the research being performed at CU Boulder campus-wide?

Terri Fiez, vice chancellor for Research Innovation, has selected a team housed within the Grand Challenge initiative to execute a definition study exploring how research computing on the cloud might benefit CU Boulder and its partners in the future.

“Cloud computing has the potential to enhance existing collaborations and stimulate new ones between CU Boulder and its many research partners, both internal and external,” says Fiez. “Discovering how the cloud can best support our researchers will be a key step forward in developing our long-term strategy as the innovation university.”

While the need for high-performance computing (HPC) will likely remain in the coming years and beyond, a hybrid strategy that integrates cloud computing is quickly becoming a viable, and even vital, approach. Cloud computing delivers the same resources as a traditional data center at a lower-operational cost, allowing users to “rent” services on an as-needed basis without the upfront capital expense that comes from provisioning HPC resources. 

The flexibility of the cloud platform also promises to maximize the speed, scale and collaborative output of research partnerships. 

“Using virtualization approaches like containers in the cloud allows researchers to better collaborate with partners, since they are already using those approaches,” says Thomas Hauser, director of research computing for CU Boulder. “Containerized computational approaches enable CU researchers to create reproducible research workflows and share those approaches with our collaborators.”

Larry Levine, director of Information Technology for CU Boulder, says he expects the campus to eventually move toward a “cloud-first” philosophy—where the cloud is the default (but not the only) answer for investigators’ computing needs. The question is always: “What is the most optimized, efficient and cost-effective way to share data and manage access to that data?”

Levine says, “There’s no right or wrong answer. It will depend on [the] type of work people are trying to get done.”

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Ambitious Alibaba takes aim at the kings of cloud computing

When you think of the biggest cloud players in the world, one company you might not consider is Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant that held a record $25 billion U.S. IPO in 2014.

Alibaba entered the cloud computing business in 2009, just three years after Amazon launched its cloud division, AWS — and Alibaba’s cloud computing efforts are among the ambitious projects that the Chinese e-commerce giant is pursuing aggressively.

It’s impossible not to note the similarities between the two companies. While Alibaba is the premier e-commerce company in China, Amazon is the biggest in the U.S.

The utter dominance of both is proven on paper: NASDAQ-listed Amazon’s market cap exceeds $400 billion, while Alibaba is valued at $250 billion according to its NYSE share price. When it comes to the cloud, the nature of their core businesses and the size of their computing requirements both necessitate computing on a massive scale. Both believe they can parlay that knowledge and experience into a significant business offering cloud services to others.

Two years ago, Alibaba decided to take the cloud part of its business more seriously and expand outside of China with a billion dollar investment in Aliyun (now known as Alibaba Cloud in English). At the time, Aliyun’s president Simon Yu made a bold prediction, telling Reuters, “Our goal is to overtake Amazon in four years, whether that’s in customers, technology, or worldwide scale.”

We’re at the halfway mark now and while that goal seems unlikely at this point, Alibaba has begun to make its presence felt, particularly in China and the rest of Asia. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that Alibaba Cloud can play an important part for Alibaba’s overall business.

Battling giants

Up until its financial commitment in Aliyun in 2015, Alibaba was content to use the scale of its e-commerce services — which range from a marketplace and branded mall, to payment services and digital banking and count nearly 500 million users — to bring in customers for its cloud business in China. Moving out to the rest of the world has far greater challenges.

Still, Alibaba’s cloud unit has been growing at a brisk pace with triple digit year-over-year growth for its last seven quarters including 115 percent in its most recent report in December. Based on that growth, Alibaba Cloud is probably one or two quarters from reaching break even or profit, but already it has surpassed the $1 billion run rate mark courtesy of $254 million in revenue in its most recent quarter. Not bad, but not close to AWS, which grew at a more modest 47 percent rate for a total income of $3.53 billion for the quarter or a run rate over $14 billion.

Giant balloons promoting AliCloud, the cloud-computing arm of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., stand on display at the 2015 Computing Conference in Hangzhou, China, on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015. Alibaba's bet on data technology is driving greater investment in areas including ways to protect user privacy as it battles Inc. for customers globally. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Photo: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

That’s a stark difference and it shows just how far Alibaba has to go in the cloud business to catch AWS.

However, Alibaba might be doing better than you think. According to Synergy Research Group, Alibaba is sixth in the world behind AWS, Microsoft, Google, IBM and Salesforce in infrastructure, platform and hosted private cloud services (this number does not include Salesforce’s more substantial SaaS business).

“For cloud infrastructure services (IaaS, PaaS, Hosted Private Cloud services) Alibaba is now ranked sixth, based on worldwide revenues in Q4. For China specifically, while AWS and Microsoft are in the top five ranking in China, the market is led by Alibaba (a long way out in front) followed by China Telecom. Alibaba market share is running at 40 percent [in China] and has been increasing with time,” John Dinsdale, Synergy’s chief analyst and research director, told TechCrunch.

Alibaba itself says the cloud unit counts 765,000 paying customers as of the last quarter. That figure represented an increase of about 114,000 on the previous quarter, although there was no equivalent number given out for the previous year.

Moving beyond China

While several different analysts agree with Synergy’s assessment of Alibaba as the clear number one cloud vendor in China, Alibaba’s Ethan Yu concedes that the market is still a few years behind the U.S., and there is plenty of room for growth — keeping in mind that China itself represents a massive potential market.

“The addressable market is getting bigger in China with only single digit IT spending in the cloud and the rest in on-prem software and hardware spending. There is still enough buy out there to move up to the cloud”, Yu said. He saw 2015 year as the year it all changed (the same year Aliyun invested a $1 billion in its cloud operation).


Photo: Alibaba

“I think in 2015, adopting infrastructure in the cloud, there was suddenly a change, a tipping point where most [Chinese] CIOs found it quite acceptable to use the cloud in some ways”, he said. But even as the market shifts in China, the company has made it clear that its ambitions stretch far beyond its home country.

“China is a big market, but the cloud market just started to grow, which gave us a good foundation. We think we can do more outside of China, but we are a few years behind. We started our global footprint a couple of years ago. We have 14 global data centers including 8 outside of China”, he explained.

US market challenges

Like AWS, Alibaba Cloud began with smaller customers, but as it sets its sights higher in the market, it wants to lure enterprise customers to the platform.  The company says that it has proven it can handle the workload from larger customers based on its abilities to handle its own massive e-commerce and financial services businesses.

Of course, landing enterprise customers in the U.S., where the new president has sent signals of tougher trade relations with China, may prove difficult. Yu said he needs to see how trade talk plays out, but he added, “For now, we don’t have any comments on that.. but our position is very firm. A friendly commercial relationship will help both parties.”

Alibaba NYSE Flags 3

Alibaba might actually find itself better positioned than others in the current climate in the U.S. Executive chairman Jack Ma held a meeting with the (then) president-elect in early January which culminated in a promise that Alibaba would create one million new jobs in the U.S.

Neither man provided details on how they would achieve that, and the promise looks like little more than grandstanding by Ma — or an effort to curry favor with the new administration. Either way, Alibaba will get its first real signal soon enough. Ant Financial, an Alibaba-affiliated fintech firm and another ambitious project, is acquiring U.S.-based Moneygram in an $880 million deal that is pegged to close in the second half of this year, assuming that regulators and the government OK it.

Alibaba’s other bets

The cloud unit and Ant Financial, which is close to raising $3 billion in debt funding for MA deals, are two areas Ma and Alibaba look to for the future. Meanwhile, Alibaba’s core e-commerce business is performing above expectations — it smashed analyst forecasts for its final quarter of 2016 and raised its expectations for the remainder of the financial year — but the e-commerce giant wants to develop businesses that can reduce its reliance on its core services in China.

Those services accounted for 87 percent of the RMB 53.25 million ($7.67 billion) revenue grossed in the last quarter.

HANGZHOU, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 19: (CHINA OUT) An inside view of Alibaba Headquarters on September 19, 2014 in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province of China. Alibaba is to be officially listed in New York Stock Exchange today with financing scale of 25 billion USD, the largest IPO ever. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Photo: VCG/Getty Images


Alibaba Cloud contributed just $215 million to that figure — with a small $49 million loss — but revenue was up 50 percent on the previous quarter alone and 115 percent on the previous year.

Although these growth figures are impressive, it would take years to reach $1 billion per quarter so Alibaba has focused on expanding its geographic footprint, pushing its cloud business into Europe, Australia, Japan and the Middle East by opening of four new data centers last November. The company has also expanded existing sites, recently doubling its capacity in Hong Kong to “address increasing demand.”

Alibaba isn’t just relying on the cloud to generate new revenue, it is investing in what it knows: e-commerce. The company picked up a stake in Paytm, India’s top mobile wallet firm, and an online sales firm, and elsewhere in India, it was linked with a deal for Amazon rival Snapdeal. There have been many rumors but no investment — nonetheless, Jack Ma has spoken publicly of his desire to expand into India, and it wouldn’t be a shock if he oversaw another deal to ensure that the plan isn’t entirely reliant on Paytm.

Elsewhere, last year Alibaba snapped up a controlling share in Lazada, the largest online shopping site in Southeast Asia, a region of more than 600 million consumers and increasing internet connectivity. While a 2016 report co-authored by Google suggested that online commerce in Southeast Asia will rise to reach $88 billion by 2025, the region is another slow burner for Alibaba. Online is thought to account for under five percent of commerce in the region, while Lazada has yet to break even, let alone post a profit.

That really sums up many of Alibaba’s bets. It is still early days and the reliance remains on Taobao (its marketplace) and T-Mall (its service for brands) in China, but there’s enough money in the bank to push its business interests in India, Southeast Asia and the cloud towards a higher chunk of revenue. And Ant Financial is also helping grow its e-commerce footprint abroad with investments in the U.S., Korea, Southeast Asia and beyond. In that respect, the cloud may be Alibaba’s longest shot — or its grandest ambition.

While it’s not impossible for a company with the resources and reach of Alibaba to make a spirited play for cloud market share outside of Asia, it would take some unlikely shifts in the current balance of power in the market for it to reach Simon Yu’s ambitious goal of catching AWS.

Featured Image: VCG/Getty Images

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Salesforce CRM Helping Healthcare Providers Boost Service

Microsoft vows GDPR compliance in all cloud services when enforcement of the new EU data privacy regulation begins in May 2018, but companies still must take action to avoid fines.

With less than 15 months left before companies around the world must comply with the EU`s strict new General Data Protection Regulation, Microsoft has promised it will be compliant with GDPR across all cloud services by the deadline in 2018.

Once GDPR enforcement begins in the EU, companies that collect, store or process data related to any EU resident will be required to comply with the new regulation, or they`ll face significant penalties. GDPR compliance will be mandatory for companies located anywhere in the world, and the global nature of the cloud means many companies may be unaware of their need to comply.

Brendon Lynch, Microsoft`s chief privacy officer, called GDPR “the most significant change to European Union (EU) privacy law in two decades,” in a blog post. “Complying with the GDPR will not be easy. To simplify your path to compliance, Microsoft is committing to be GDPR-compliant across our cloud services when enforcement begins on May 25, 2018.”

Lynch wrote that Microsoft is committed to principles of cloud trust, including “security, privacy, transparency and compliance.”

However, moving operations to Microsoft cloud services will be only part of the solution for companies wishing to attain EU GDPR compliance. “While Microsoft is committed to helping you successfully comply with the GDPR, it is important to recognize that compliance is a shared responsibility,” Lynch wrote. GDPR compliance will require companies to take steps to meet the regulation`s new requirements, including “greater data access and deletion rules, risk assessment procedures, a data protection officer role for many organizations and data breach notification processes.”

“Microsoft is to be commended, not only for its recent announcement on GDPR compliance, but also for providing a pretty good slate of GDPR education and compliance resources for its customers and the U.S. business community at large,” Stephen Cobb, senior security researcher at ESET, based in San Diego, told SearchSecurity by email. “Several recent surveys suggest that current awareness of GDPR among U.S.-based organizations is lower than it needs to be at this stage, particularly given the very large increase in fines that GDPR introduces.”

“Failure to comply once the deadline is here could result in fines of 20 million euros, or 4% of annual global turnover — potentially billions of pounds,” said Deema Freij, global data privacy officer at enterprise collaboration software maker Intralinks, based in New York. “Microsoft is smart to be proactive on this, and hopefully, they are setting an example for smaller businesses.”

Julia White, corporate vice president at Microsoft, spoke at the Cloud Security Alliance Summit last week at RSA Conference 2017 about a number of cloud security issues, including GDPR compliance, which she said was No. 1 on her list of most important issues for this year.

“It is clearly the top conversation I`m having,” she said.

White said no matter where she travels — Europe, Asia, Australia and the U.S. — GDPR and its effect on security and privacy are top of mind with businesses. But while many see cloud services as a complicating factor for GDPR compliance, White argued the opposite, saying, “The cloud plays such a pivotal role in helping all of us and our customers get to GDPR compliance.”

White said cloud services bring privacy handling, data protection and security capabilities together in one place for customers to manage.

“I quickly turn GDPR conversations into cloud conversations,” she said, “and it starts to make more and more sense to people on that front.”

Microsoft`s announcement came the same day it received a second warning letter from the Article 29 Working Party, EU`s top data privacy watchdog regulators, over concerns related to Windows 10. The letter noted that Microsoft should simplify the way users choose data-sharing options and clarify what is done with collected data.

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