Self-Service Cloud Solutions for Researchers Seizes the Moment in I2 Online Event

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

By Bob Flynn, Internet2 Program Manager, Cloud Infrastructure and Platform Services

Have you ever had it happen where the thing you are thinking so much about starts to pop up everywhere? You are shopping for a new car and suddenly you see that same model all around town. You and your partner are expecting and at every turn you notice parents with infants in strollers or strapped to their chests. You decide to make masks the next hip fashion trend and then you see everyone wearing one. You know the feeling.

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Now it could be that the discussion during the February Higher Education Cloud Computing Community Group (CCCG) call and the I2 Online session How Universities are Providing Self-Service Cloud Environments for Researchers later that day were just that kind of coincidence, but I think not. I think these are just two of the many expeditions out there in search of the same treasure – robust academic research computing in the cloud.

Supporting Research in the Cloud

At the February CCCG call (slides and recording), Harvard’s Ben Rota reported on a recent informal survey he and a colleague, Jim Kenyon from the University of Michigan, conducted to measure how higher ed cloud enablement teams were supporting research computing at their institutions.

I encourage you to watch Rota’s presentation or read the survey results in his slides, but one finding in particular highlighted the importance of the afternoon’s I2 Online session. Fully half of respondents to their survey said the level of research computing support they want to achieve at their institution is “self-service (with guardrails),” meaning that with some groundwork by IT and security, it provides an environment where researchers could provision their own resources and pursue their work without red tape, hand-holding or deep cloud expertise of their own.

In fact, Rota’s own interviews with researchers within Harvard exposed a perceived barrier to the use of cloud technology from the researchers themselves, namely a base level of cloud skills. Researchers, Rota reported, said they should “not have to learn how to use the cloud, they want to just be able to use the cloud.”

Self-Service Solutions Showcase

The tools and ideas presented during the I2 Online How Universities are Providing Self-Service Cloud Environments for Researchers presentations, RONIN or Service Workbench, were clearly born out of these challenges. Both present significant opportunities for campus cloud teams, cloud research support, security, and, most importantly, the researchers themselves.


RONIN’s “no nerds needed” approach allows researchers to launch their own complex compute and storage environments in minutes through a simple web interface. Parice Brandies, PhD Candidate from the University of Sydney School of Life and Environmental Sciences, started the RONIN discussion with a compelling walk-through of her Top 10 RONIN features for Researchers in the context of her wildlife genomics research.

Her story begins with a picture of one of her test subjects, a Tasmanian Devil. (Sadly no video of them moving like little tornados.) She highlights the compelling RONIN user experience, the intuitive features that address common researcher concerns about cloud use, and instinctive workflow tools, including a built-in virtual desktop. For those who need to feed the nerd within, Nathan Albrighton, CEO and Founder of RONIN, follows Ms. Brandies with a technical deep-dive demo of the application’s many capabilities.

Service Workbench

The Service Workbench project grew out of the work by Paul Avillach, Assistant Professor in Pediatrics & Biomedical Informatics, Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital to build a “patient-centric information commons” to integrate patient clinical and genomic data at scale in an effort to create a new taxonomy of disease. During the course of this project, he was convinced the benefits of cloud (scalability, elasticity, security, compliance, and innovation) should be made accessible to more researchers in the interests of accelerating science.

Professor Avillach worked with AWS engineers to create Service Workbench so that researchers could “get a baseline of cloud without having to become experts in it.” The framework provides a model to create a catalog of templatized and vetted secure workspace configurations that researchers can self-provision in just a few clicks. Using open-source code that can be extended by the IT staff and audited by the security office, these workspaces can quickly create workflows with the necessary tools, provide access to private or public data sets, and enable budget tracking and easy collaboration, all without the researcher needing deep technical cloud knowledge.

While Professor Avillach got deeper into the technical weeds than his day job would imply, he was followed by Madhu Bussa, Sr. Solutions Architect, AWS with a dive into the architecture and a demonstration.

Have no FOMO!

Reports are that these presentations set Slack on fire at some institutions, with attendees telling colleagues in real-time to drop what they were doing and join the virtual event. In case you were not able to attend, or just want to go back and soak in more of the details, we’ve got it all here for you to get up to speed. Next thing you know you’ll look around and everyone will be providing powerful and intuitive self-service tools (with guardrails) to enable their researchers to leverage the power of cloud computing. That wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.

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