Research and Innovation with Cloud Technologies at the U of I

Leveraging Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform to accelerate research and power innovation

student wearing a mask issitting in chair using two computer monitors with mouse and keyboard

In all fields, the exploration of new technologies and how they might accelerate research continues to grow. Technology is essential to those interested in conducting research faster, more accurately, and with a bigger impact. However, the need for technical knowledge, costs, and access often act as barriers to research progress.

In an effort to heighten research capabilities and opportunity, Technology Services at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign offers three major cloud platforms for researchers (faculty, staff, and students included). These technologies provide access to a wide-range of resources to assist with computation, data collection and storage, website and app development, and more, in a collaborative, accessible, cost-effective, and highly-flexible environment. It is part of an effort to establish a dedicated Cloud Center of Excellence that focuses on advancing research and innovation with cloud technologies.

Cloud Technologies Today

A cloud platform refers to computing hardware and operating systems located outside of a physical location (e.g., off campus), and usually at a data center managed by a third party who can cost-effectively maintain a large computing infrastructure. In other words, it allows people to use large amounts of computing power without having to purchase, host, and maintain all the required equipment to run a supercomputing system or cluster. It also grants someone the flexibility to use a particular resource while they need it, and simply stop the service when they are done.

“You can think of [cloud services] as a collection of building blocks that can be mixed and matched to perform processing,” explained Amy Hovious, manager of Research IT Support Services. “You can do everything from hosting a web page to high performance computing and all the things in between. You are only charged for services you use in a pay-as-you-go model.”

The ability to easily increase capacity and use (“scale up”) and the accessibility of these services are key motivators for U of I researchers, particularly when they are trying to collaborate with other partners on campus or across the globe.

“Scale is a big part of this!” said Ken Taylor, cloud architect at Technology Services. “We have this change that’s occurring now of shifting from on-premise data centers, to cloud data centers. And it’s not really that different because the cloud is just somebody else’s computer, but it allows us to be more flexible and more responsive and more scalable than we would if we were sticking with the on-prem environment.”

At the U of I, Technology Services manages and supports three major cloud platforms: Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform (GCP). While all three offer varying degrees of high-speed compute power, database storage, and other functionalities at lower costs, the university’s licensing with AWS grants more in-depth support for our users, and a broader set of global cloud-based products. 

AWS also incorporates more security measures, making it an easy way to conduct research using sensitive data including FERPA, HIPAA, and government classified data.

“The security and privacy team are highly involved,” said Taylor. “All data in Amazon is encrypted, and you can increase levels of encryption by using keys. You can also use a virtual private cloud (VPC) which has restrictions as to who can access and what connections back to campus you have.”

Providing accessible cloud resources to campus can spark innovation in many ways, even beyond the research enterprise. According to Hovious, “it can be used to streamline IT operations, give students hands-on experience with the latest tools and technologies, as well as accelerate timely science.” AWS, in particular, proved an essential tool in combating COVID-19 on campus and in our community by handling all data transfer for the SHIELD Illinois program. In another instance, the Gies College of Business used AWS to build a research data environment that serves as a searchable card catalog system that collects, organizes, and stores all of their datasets. This project (a prototype) was completed in one semester with interns who had no previous experience with AWS. Instead, Gies took advantage of available resources at Technology Services, including training, to make this idea come to life.

The Cloud Center of Excellence

 

Ultimately, Technology Services aims to provide the university community easy access to AWS, Azure, and GCP, with a robust support structure that includes services such as way-finding, promotion and marketing, consulting, training, active communications, and administrative framework, all as components of the newly-formed Cloud Center of Excellence.

This new center aims to build support services like training events and an active community focused on improving access and use of cloud services by empowering the user.

“The cloud itself isn’t a destination,” said Mary Stevens, technology architect at Technology Services, “it’s what the cloud enables that matters. A ‘cloud first’ approach is the foundational underpinning that allows us to support so much more as an organization.”

There are many benefits to establishing Technology Services as a homebase for cloud services at the U of I. Our experts and technicians have been working with all three service providers for years, building partnerships and helping these companies understand the needs of higher education and our specific needs as a research-based university.

Technology Services provides enterprise licensing that allows for ease of use and cost like discounted usage fees and direct billing to university accounts. We also work with the service providers to develop ready-to-use hosting, storage, and other tools that will allow users to start with some foundations in place, rather than from scratch. 

For staff, one of the benefits of a cloud center is eliminating the need to get new and costly equipment installed in a department for a service like high-performance computing, for example. The cost is significantly less to use a cloud service, and there is no dependence on a physical machine that might break and require maintenance. All of that is outsourced to the provider. This saves time and overhead administrative costs. It also allows for flexibility and more freedom to try something new. 

“With this model, we don’t have to buy for maximum capacity,” added Stevens. “We can try things out, spin them up, and then spin them back down. We are only paying for what we’re using.”

As of today, Taylor adds, “[cloud services] have never gone down or had any runtime problems. This is what is nice about the cloud infrastructure moving to a serverless environment: maintenance is a thing of the past. I don’t have to patch a server, I don’t have to put a new upgrade on a software. It just works. We get to focus on what’s important: doing the processing and storing the data.”

The Future of Cloud Services

 

The future of cloud services and what it may enable for our university is seemingly limitless at the moment. These services help IT professionals provide better support, and evolve the education and research capabilities of the U of I community.

“The whole point of the cloud is not just moving from one thing to another (server to virtual machine (VM), VM to cloud).  We are changing the way we are working for the better, and changing the way we are able to help people from a research perspective, so that they can go and change the world,” said Hovious.

Researchers at the U of I are also using cloud technologies to explore how to use data to improve student academic success. The Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL), is currently developing a student success system by gathering and analyzing pieces of data about a student’s academic career to find correlations for success factors. What helps a student along academically and what holds them back? Based on their previous successes, would it make sense for them to pursue a particular class or minor? These projects could be a game changer for student experience and graduation rates.

The vision for cloud services at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign emphasizes skills development, training, and community building – both for the experts and the users. Building a support ecosystem of people who can share and learn and create together is the ultimate goal to having a successful cloud-centered organization.


Learn more about Amazon Web Services and other cloud technologies available for University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign faculty, staff and students. Schedule a free consultation with a cloud expert today.