Microsoft to offer free Azure access to researchers

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University researchers are traditionally cash strapped, these days more than ever given cutbacks at many government agencies that were traditionally reliable sources of funding.

Those researchers might be interested in a new program from Microsoft that gives away use of its Azure cloud. I haven’t heard of any other cloud providers offering free access like this. [UPDATE: Amazon Web Services also offers grants to researchers. More on that below.]

Source: Zoonabar, via Flickr

Microsoft Research said it plans to give away as many as 100 grants of Windows Azure resources each year. It didn’t specifically set a limit on how much compute power it would give away, saying it would make “sizable grants of Windows Azure resources.”

Researchers affiliated with universities or non-profit research labs in “any branch of scholarly activity” are invited to apply.

Each award will last one year.

For relatively small needs, compute power likely would make up a small enough portion of a project’s cost that some researchers might just pay for it. But larger projects – I’m thinking of areas of science like genomics or climate study -- might not get off the ground without access to serious compute resources.

I recently spoke to a researcher who does predictive analytics who has struggled to manage the compute piece of his project. In his case, it wasn’t so much the cost, although that probably limited the scope of his project because he knows how much data he can crunch and store, as it was the complexity of stitching together compute power plus necessary databases.

Microsoft Research is also offering training, technical resources and curriculum to help researchers learn more about using cloud computing. That kind of support might have helped the researcher I spoke with recently.

I don’t know of any other cloud providers offering this kind of free access to their services. I’ve reached out to Amazon Web Services to find out if it has a similar program and will update this post if I hear back.

UPDATE: AWS also offers grants for usage to researchers. It accepts applications four times a year. It has a slightly different setup, offering credits to researchers for use of the service.

Read more of Nancy Gohring's "To the Cloud" blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Nancy on Twitter at @ngohring and on Google+. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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