On cloud nine

Three major universities in Qatar have come together to implement an ambitious cloud computing project that spans not just research, but also the general industrial sector and economy of the country.

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By  Sathya Mithra Ashok Published  May 4, 2009

Three major universities in Qatar have come together to implement an ambitious cloud computing project that spans not just research, but also the general industrial sector and economy of the country.

Cloud computing projects remain a relative rarity all over the world. In the Middle East, there is hardly any talk of these projects, in spite of the advantages that they can offer. A long decision process, and an inability to get budgets to cover it without a solid return-on-investment proposition backing it up are largely the reasons for the delay in comprehensive projects taking off.

IBM has taken a leadership role in the field of cloud computing and has developed a leading experience in this field. They have a very well established presence in this part of the world.

This is why when three major universities in Qatar decided that it was time for them to go the cloud computing way, it was definitely time for the rest of the region to sit up and pay attention.

“From how we understand cloud computing, it seemed to be a natural transition to the next thing from our current systems. Last spring we had a discussion at Carnegie Mellon that it would be useful for us to set up a cloud computing initiative in Qatar. Once we had decided on Doha as the location, we decided that for the project to be a success we had to collaborate with Qatar University and Texas A&M in Qatar,” says Dr Majd Sakr, associate teaching professor and co-ordinator of the computer science program at Carnegie Mellon Univesity (CMU) in Qatar.

Intensely research-focused universities as they are, all three universities realised that cloud computing could provide the ideal environment to pursuer more high end research activities in chosen fields.

“Cloud computing comes as a natural next step in computing cluster technology. Here we have a computing cluster that consists of a few hundred computer nodes and they are actively used by researchers. It was the right application for the university and the kind of collaborative research that is conducted here. There is a demand for increased computational power for research to solve problems. These developments made us look for new paradigms such as cloud computing,” says Prof. Hussein Alnuweiri, senior professor, electrical and computer engineering at Texas A&M University (TA&M) in Qatar.

A meeting between the universities was initiated by Carnegie Mellon.

“We are people who have been in academia and we are used to the process of collaboration, we are less competitive when it comes to projects like these. This is not the first time we are collaborating with each other. The synergy between the founding members is another factor in the success of this collaboration and for being able to run it easily,” points out Alnuweiri.

This initial meeting in September last year was followed by other meetings where a common vision and goals were developed.

“The idea is suited for Qatar, considering that the country is booming, and research is booming in the country. Cloud computing is an enabler for research and innovation. It was a natural thing and it has been easy for us to come together on those objectives, and even to sell it to management and other external parties,” says Prof. Qutaibah Malluhi, head of computer science and engineering at Qatar University (QU).

Getting off the ground

With the higher management convinced of the project’s potential, the three universities chose IBM as their vendor of choice for the cloud computing project.

“IBM has taken a leadership role in the field of cloud computing and has developed a leading experience in this field. They have also launched several educational initiatives in the US along with Google and the National Science Foundation. Also, they have a very well established presence in this part of the world and they have shown the readiness and stamina to see such a complex project through, which has made them a very good natural partner for us to collaborate with on the project. And so far it has been nothing but a successful collaboration,” says Sakr.

With the vendor in place, the next part involved co-ordination between the different parties to arrive at the crucial and comprehensive project document.

“It was quite a challenging task to get three renowned universities to agree on the wording of the memorandum of understanding that we signed with IBM. To give you a perspective, QU has two branch campuses, TA&M and CMU have their two main campuses, there is IBM in Dubai and then there is IBM in the US. And all were involved in negotiating this. Like any endeavour of this kind the finalisation of the agreement took some time but because of everyone’s commitment we managed to pull through and were able to move onto the next step,” says Sakr.

With the MoU signed in the first week of January, the universities decided to start the ambitious project the right way - with a pilot.

Sakr says, “The first phase was to get a pilot project started. We wanted this off the ground and running fast because we wanted to start engaging the local industry, and there is no better way to do that than to tell them ‘the infrastructure is available, come and test it and learn about this new computing paradigm’. We have to credit IBM for making this happen in good time in an efficient manner.”

The pilot project, which is located at CMU, was started off with a configuration design of the base system, which was presented for approval to the resident IT team of the university to ensure that there were no clashes with already existing infrastructure.

“Once the approval was in place, the next step was to get IBM to build the system overseas and then ship it to us so that we can initiate the installation of the hardware. Post installation of the hardware, IBM’s partner GBM (Gulf Business Machines) located in Qatar updated all the firmware. IBM then flew down one of its engineers from the US to do the relevant software installation. Since everything was in perfect order, the installation took just one day and the system was up and running, which was quite dramatic. The engineer then conducted local training for the CMU folks, the ones who will be using and administering the system, so that we can make sure we have the local capacity to handle the systems,” says Sakr.

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