Barcelona and the future for the cloud

A converted chapel in Barcelona is the home for a supercomputing centre that is helping to revolutionise the way we will use cloud computing.

BY CRISTINA JIMENEZ

It almost seems like a metaphor for the new computer age. It certainly looks like a scene from a science-fiction film. The aisles of Torre Girona, a converted 19th-century chapel, no longer seat worshippers – instead, they hold one of Europe’s most powerful computers, managed by scientists at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC), the focus of Spain’s supercomputing effort.

That supercomputer is called MareNostrum (after the ancient Latin name for the Mediterranean Sea), and among the computer scientists who program it are people with serious ambitions for cloud computing. The BSC was inaugurated in 2006 to host the supercomputer, but the centre’s expertise in cloud computing had been building up since the 1990s at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, UPC-Barcelona Tech, which is strongly linked to the centre and provides the lion’s share of its research force.

“We introduce intelligent computing language in the software so that machines can take decisions autonomously and in real time.”

As the Internet becomes faster and more robust, the desktop or laptop computers we all work with will become, primarily, tools to access the cloud. “You will have a terminal – it can be a computer or any other gadget with an Internet connection – and just need a web browser to run a program or have access to your data,” says Jordi Torres, group manager of the Autonomic Systems and eBusiness Platforms at the BSC, which is also the Spanish national supercomputing centre.

That in itself is not too much of a surprise. After all, the use of applications that live on the Internet has gained momentum since we entered the 21st century. Every time we check a web-based email, like Hotmail, or interact with our friends on social networking sites, we are cloud computing. But the challenge for cloud computing now is for business to take advantage of it, says Eduard Aiguadé, director of the Computer Applications department at the BSC.

It’s easy to see how cloud computing helps business: it cuts down costs because it optimises IT resources. The key to the cloud’s efficiency lies in virtualisation technologies. “They allow the creation of multiple virtual machines within a single physical computer,” Aiguadé explains. Virtualisation is to computing resources what a shared taxi ride is to fuel saving: with three passengers sharing a cab, you get three times the service but only need the energy for one trip.

Under the new paradigm, “tenants” hungry for computing resources will rent whatever computing power they need. With the hardware now cheap, it will be seen as one more utility, such as electricity or water. But much more is to come.

A cloud that manages itself

The ultimate goal of Barcelona’s cloud computing scientists is far more ambitious. “By applying artificial intelligence to the cloud, we are hoping to develop a system through which computers can manage themselves,” Torres explains. For example, computer scientists are looking to develop software that follows computers’ power consumption and regulates their operation according to the specific needs at any given time, thus reducing energy expenditure.

Implanting artificial intelligence into codes that will run in the cloud to improve efficiency is one of the strong research lines at the BSC. It’s part of a drive to create applications, executed in the cloud, that go beyond basic automation to anticipate situations and take decisions in real time over the Internet. This type of application is what Torres calls Smart ICT. “We introduce intelligent computing language in the software so that machines can take decisions autonomously and in real time,” Torres explains.

For example, the BSC was involved between 2006 and 2009 in the EU’s Framework project SORMA (Self-Organising IT Resource Management). By creating intelligent algorithms for businesses such as wholesalers of tangible goods (soap, say, or shoes), they aimed to maximise firms’ profits with the use of minimal computing resources.

Another Framework project with the BSC fingerprint, which also finished in 2009, was BREIN (Business objective driven REliable and INtelligent grids for real business), building a bridge between today’s two main computing paradigms: grids, which are computing resources physically interconnected to achieve a common goal, and clouds, which are on-demand computing resources.

If clouds could behave like grids, explains Rosa Maria Badia, GRID computing group manager at the BSC, it would be easier for companies in need of high-performance computing to outsource jobs by renting computer resources from the cloud, rather than having to purchase more of their own computing power.

After the expertise gained in the SORMA and BREIN projects, the group led by Torres recently completed the development of a new BSC in-house cloud environment, EMOTIVE (Elastic Management Of Tasks In Virtualised Environments) Cloud-Barcelona (http://www.emotivecloud.net), an open source virtualisation software for implementing cloud computing solutions designed specifically to make life easier for scientists in need of highly efficient computing resources.

Private clouds

The BSC also leads the EU project Open Grid Forum – Europe, supporting the Open Grid Forum office in charge of standardising grid protocols and, since 2007, in charge of cloud-related topics too. One of the most interesting activities of the project at the moment, says Badia, is the Open Cloud Computing Interface Working Group, which is looking at developing a standard interface for clouds. “This could allow private clouds to interact,” she points out.

The future, Badia believes, is that corporations will own and manage their own private clouds. So, the outcomes of the Interface Working Group will have a significant impact on the business sector. But while some companies are already adapting to the new trend, many others in the ICT sector will have to adjust their business strategies to accommodate the coming changes.

“A lot of companies will close their data processing centres and manage their IT systems remotely, which will compete only on the price of energy, as hardware is becoming cheaper all the time,” says Torres.

Scientists estimate that about 2 to 3 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions come from computing-related activities. Because of this, there is an urgent need for optimised computing and there are many R&D efforts under way to address power consumption.

“Smart ICT will be fundamental for a sustainable future because it optimises resources,” Torres believes. For example, power consumption sustainability is one of the key issues addressed by the BSC’s NUBAS project, which aims at developing a platform for business-oriented cloud applications using intelligent software. The project is led by Teléfonica R+D, the research department of Spain’s biggest IT company, and funded by Spain’s Ministry of Industry.

But cloud computing also paves the way for the creation of new IT business. Because it makes computing services easily available, cloud computing offers a huge range of possibilities to would-be IT entrepreneurs. Torres, also a ­professor at UPC–Barcelona Tech, says to his students, “You just need to plug, go and have smart ideas.”

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