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Windows Azure Helps Scientists Unfold Protein Mystery and Fight Disease

We love hearing about how Windows Azure helps drive innovation for organizations.  Here’s another great example:  Microsoft has partnered with the University of Washington’s…

We love hearing about how Windows Azure helps drive innovation for organizations.  Here’s another great example:  Microsoft has partnered with the University of Washington’s Baker Laboratory to help scientists supercharge the computing power of their protein folding research by using Windows Azure. Helping scientists get faster results could mean speeding up cures for Alzheimer’s, cancers, salmonella, and malaria.

Earlier this year Microsoft IT’s Marlin Eiben was looking for a project to help demonstrate the “sheer computing power” of Windows Azure and got the idea for partnering with the Baker Lab from talking to his son, a research technologist there.

“We wanted a demonstration project that not only showed how Windows Azure worked, but something that would make a significant difference,” Eiben said. “Through my son’s connection I was aware that this is cutting-edge science, and it seemed a natural application for massive computing power.”

After Eiben got the green light at Microsoft, father and son approached David Baker, the lab’s principal and namesake, who put them in touch with Nikolas Sgourakis, a visiting scholar at the Baker Lab who is using computational modeling to try to help solve the mystery of what proteins look like up close.

Scientist Nikolas Sgourakis (left) is using Windows Azure to boost his protein folding research after father and son Marlin and Chris Eiben (center and right) helped establish a partnership between Microsoft and the University of Washington’s Baker Laboratory, the world’s top computational biology lab. 

To deploy and test the lab’s software on Windows Azure, Eiben enlisted the help of his Microsoft IT colleagues Pankaj Arora and Chris Sinco. The two architected, tested and helped scale out a solution. Arora even set up a server under the bed in his home to create and test the Windows Azure deployment.

“What’s interesting about this is that it’s historically not the traditional Windows Azure scenario. More traditional scenarios are Web startups, hosting content, websites and business applications. This really shows the versatility of Windows Azure as a platform,” Arora said.

“Normally, this work would be shared by thousands of private machines owned by people who had donated computing time,” Eiben said. “Among these thousands, someone in Helsinki might offer time, and someone in Sao Paulo, but with Windows Azure Nikolas can get his results much faster and more reliably.”

Sgourakis’ “benchmark” Windows Azure experiment used 2.5 million calculations to essentially check the algorithms and process that he will use. He said the experiment – which used the equivalent of 2,000 computers running for just under a week – was a success. Everything checked out. The second test, the one to compute properties of the salmonella “needle,” runs this week and will take a similar number of computations.

Sgourakis said Windows Azure has been “invaluable” to his research.  “This interaction with Microsoft has shown me the power of the cloud. This whole idea behind computing on demand could be very useful for scientists like myself who don’t have the money for on-demand computing time, but who need to get answers right away,” he said. “It’s a most powerful tool that we need to perform our research, and having a resource like Windows Azure available to do groundbreaking work right away is very encouraging to me.”

To learn more, click here to read the feature story on Microsoft News Center.