Nectar celebrates a mammoth milestone by talking to users about their cloud experience
This month, Nectar celebrates surpassing the impressive milestone of 10,000 registered Research Cloud users. The cloud’s steady growth rate of close to 200 new users per month, since established on February 1st, 2012, is testament to the continuing demand for cloud infrastructure amongst Australian researchers. Our eight nodes across Australia have been instrumental in reaching this target in just over five years through the continued promotion and support of our NCRIS-funded infrastructure. The Australian Access Federation (AAF) has also been an important component of the cloud’s success, providing a simple way for users to access, register and immediately start using the cloud..
Continuing growth of users hosting their research on the Nectar Research Cloud – including 250 new users per month since January 2016.
The raw numbers tell a remarkable story of the Nectar Research Cloud’s popularity. Since the cloud was commissioned, Nectar’s 10,000 users have spun up over one million virtual machines to support research across all major research fields. Coupled with several thousand users of the Nectar Virtual Laboratories, there is no doubt about the considerable impact of the Nectar Research Cloud on the Australian research community. Quantifying this impact is a little harder to grasp. We recently surveyed 45 user groups to gather some of the stories behind these numbers. Nectar spoke to users from 16 major fields of research to discover what it is about the Nectar Research Cloud that makes it so valuable to Australian researchers.
Innovation through accessibility
Our users identified rapid and open access to computing resources as a key benefit of the Nectar Research Cloud. Access to the cloud enhances innovation in research by allowing researchers to easily explore the potential of cloud computing. This is particularly important for early career researchers.
When starting out in academia, funding to buy compute resources is difficult to come by. Whereas access to the Nectar Research Cloud can give researchers the key to unlock funding opportunities. Dr. Nick Engerer (ANU Fenner School) used the Nectar Research Cloud to showcase the potential of his distributed solar energy modelling research to industry and funding bodies. “Having the cloud resource to get the model running in real-time really showed that we [were] serious about building a real time system and to get funding. It cannot be overstated how important that was.”
He believes the ability to bring his real-time distributed solar forecasting tool to life on the cloud, played a crucial role in securing funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA). “Using Nectar to show off that tool, has now been one of the reasons that we have been able to get industry interested and we now have an ARENA project”.
Small cores, easy collaboration, big impact
When trying to quantify impact it can be tempting to link increasing impact with more compute power. Projects hosted on the cloud vary in size from a single CPU through to 1000+ cores. Yet the impact of a small allocation to a research project should not be underestimated.
Several users pointed out that the ability to host comparatively lightweight resources on the cloud is having a big impact on their research. From collaborative spaces and project management tools to publicly available web apps, researchers are using the cloud in creative ways to enable, enhance and promote their research. Users describe the resources they host in the cloud as “incredibly useful”, “brilliant”, “the backbone of the project”, “a life-saver”.
Key to the success of collaboration on the cloud is the neutrality of access to the resource. While access to institutional infrastructure tends to be restricted to the host institution, Nectar resources transcend these barriers through the Australian Access Federation. This allows easy access for collaborators across any number of institutions and internationally. The majority of users agreed the Research Cloud enables faster and easier collaboration. An important measure of impact given more than half of users surveyed used the cloud for cross-institutional research projects.
Transforming and enabling world-leading research
Around a third of users described the Nectar cloud as completely enabling or allowing new possibilities for their research. In the words of Professor Paul Roe (Ecoacoustics Research Group, QUT): “Nectar absolutely enables our research. We are doing new research into environmental audio data, we are world leaders in this research and we could not do this without Nectar.”
Access to Nectar resources enables Paul and his team to store, share and process thousands of ecological sound recordings collected and uploaded from remote locations across Queensland. The ARC recently recognised the importance of this research by awarding Paul and his team funding to establish the Australian Acoustic Observatory.
For Associate Professor James McCaw (University of Melbourne), the research cloud has “completely changed the kind of research we have been able to do”. James and his research group use cloud resources to develop mathematical models, that describe the dynamics of infectious diseases, such as influenza and malaria. Emphasising the significance of this research, James and his collaborators won a 2017 ARC Discovery Grant, to enable them to further develop models of pathogen dynamics within the human body. Also part of the team that won the 2016 Eureka Prize for Infectious Disease research, James thinks the Nectar Research Cloud is “by far and away the best solution I can see for our work.”
Challenges and the Future
When asked about the challenges of using the cloud, respondents commonly identified initial setup and user documentation as two of the main hurdles to overcome. Recognising these obstacles, Nectar reviewed and updated user documentation in early 2016. This resulted in the complete revision of many key user guides that can now be accessed through our joint Nectar – RDS support portal. We’re committed to continually improving our user documentation and our support team would love to hear any feedback on the revised documentation. We also encourage users to post on the online support forums and Nectar Power User group or contact their local Research Cloud Node for further assistance.
Most users had investigated commercial cloud options but at present found Nectar the most competitive option. One key advantage of Nectar identified by users was the ability to link their cloud allocation to other national research infrastructure such as RDS storage and supercomputing facilities. The fact that users could quickly and easily create a Nectar account using their institutional login (thanks to the AAF) was also identified as a key advantage of the Nectar Research cloud.
As the popularity of the cloud continues to grow towards capacity, virtual machines may become harder to come by at some locations. We recommend speaking to your local node representative about any issues you are facing when applying for allocations and spinning up instances.
Clearly, the Nectar Research Cloud provides a unique and well-regarded resource to the Australian research community. At Nectar we are proud of the diversity of research on the Research Cloud and look forward to continuing to support a diverse range of Australian research.
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