Researchers Have a 'BLAST' With Microsoft Azure

Microsoft announced Tuesday that it has developed a free version of a key analysis application for the biosciences that provides dynamic, high performance computing-like (HPC) performance via the company's Microsoft Azurecloud computing service.

Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) has developed a version of the National Center for Biotechnology Information's (NCBI) Basic Local Alignment Search Tool (BLAST), an application that is widely used in the life sciences to handle compute intensive tasks such as comparing DNA and protein sequences.

Using BLAST with Microsoft Azure, Research scientists can run their sequence processing in the cloud, using multiple "instances" of Windows Azure to provide the level of compute power needed.

"[In the past] when researchers wanted to do a BLAST run, you would need to have your own cluster, or wait in line, Bill Hamilton, director with Microsoft's technical computing group, told InternetNews.com.

Among the tasks that Microsoft mentioned as typical scenarios for BLAST on Windows Azure were "to help identify new animal species, improve drug effectiveness and produce biofuels."

Microsoft made the announcement at Supercomputing (SC) 2010 in New Orleans. The company also said it will release Service Pack 1 (SP1) for Windows HPC Server 2008 R2 by the end of the year.

The update will enable researchers to link onsite HPC systems to Windows Azure.

"We see HPC as one of the first killer applications for the Azure cloud," Hamilton said.

Also at the conference, the company demonstrated BLAST running on Microsoft Azure, in order to show its use for performing 100 billion comparisons of protein sequences in a database managed by the NCBI.

Additionally, Microsoft said that the Tokyo Institute of Technology recently tested a Windows HPC Server system performing at a petaflop -- a quadrillion floating point operations per second.

The BLAST software is free. Microsoft began charging for Windows Azure in February, and the company claims to now have 20,000 paying customers.

Also in February, Microsoft announced that qualified researchers could apply for free Windows Azure use through grants via the National Science Foundation

More information is available online.

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