Microsoft will provide access to its Azure cloud platform to two academic projects for three years.
Horizon, a research project run by University of Nottingham, and Inria, a French computer science collaboration, will use Azure for three years without charge, Microsoft said on Wednesday. The deal will see the projects use Azure for scalable computing, storage, and web management research.
Horizon and Inria are researching technologies that can be used for societal benefit.
Microsoft researchers previously collaborated with the projects, Dan Reed, Microsoft's corporate vice president of the eXtreme Computing Group, told ZDNet UK.
"In the collaboration with both institutions, Microsoft [previously] focused on research projects rather than computing resources," said Reed.
The outlay for Microsoft for the Azure provision was difficult to gauge, said Reed, but Microsoft's spending on the projects will run to "a substantial number of millions of dollars".
Microsoft will make resources such as Azure support available to the projects, and work with researchers on academic aspects. According to Reed, 10 Microsoft researchers will contribute, focusing on building software, tools and technologies on Azure. Reed said that a majority of this software will be made open source.
"Researchers will use whatever model is appropriate, but our plan is to make most of the software open source," said Reed. "Whatever [Microsoft] develop[s], we will make available as open source."
One of the aims of the Microsoft researchers will be to develop desktop software that can handle interfacing with back-end high-performance computing systems.
"Excel is a killer app for researchers, and very popular as a desktop tool," said Reed. "We want to create a capability for desktop tools to scale and power... [and] run computations that are far more complex. People want a simple, easy way to use interfaces." Reed said that during the three years, Microsoft was "hoping to stimulate models [of computing] that researchers and agencies can acquire on an ongoing basis".
Derek McAuley, director of the University of Nottingham Horizon project, told ZDNet UK on Wednesday that Horizon planned to research how Azure can be used as a technology to deliver services, and how small businesses can use Azure in their business models.
One ongoing Horizon project will test how cloud computing can be combined with social networking and apps on mobile devices for car-sharing purposes, said McAuley.
"[Researchers will look at] apps for location-based services that integrate social networking with car-sharing," said McAuley. "Car-sharing is a social issue."
Another strand of research will focus on how small businesses and the public sector can use Azure, said McAuley.
"[We'll] sit down and draw out the business case," said McAuley. "The cost of cloud computing is low, but it can scale massively." McAuley's team of 30 staff members already have access to paid-for cloud like Amazon Elastic Cloud Compute (EC2). When the three-year period for Azure use is over, the university may pay to continue Azure research, said McAuley.
"We're already paying for other cloud resources," said McAuley. "If we continue to use Azure, aside from knocking on the door and asking Microsoft [to extend the deal], we'll end up paying for it."
French researchers for Inria will use Azure for research projects such as neuroscience research.
"We are excited that our neuroscience imaging project will have access to this cloud resource and the continued collaboration," said Jean-Jacques Lévy, director of the Microsoft Research-Inria Joint Centre, in a statement.
Microsoft will also continue collaborating with the Venus-C project, a European collaboration that seeks to deploy cloud for biomedicine, civil engineering and science, said the statement.