Organizations Solving the World’s Toughest Problems Turn to Windows Azure
Dec. 12, 2011
Windows Azure is helping organizations make a human impact. The cloud brings affordable speed and efficiency that make it possible for Aidmatrix to better respond to disasters around the world, and for UW’s Baker Laboratory to access the computing power to research and develop cures for diseases.

REDMOND, Wash. — Dec. 12, 2011 — When the 9.0 magnitude Tohoku earthquake struck off the east coast of Japan last March, it took the lives of more than 20,000 people, destroyed or damaged nearly 750,000 buildings, and wiped away virtually all aspects of the region’s critical infrastructure.

Newly updated Windows Azure home page.
Newly updated Windows Azure home page.
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With lives on the line, Dallas-based nonprofit Aidmatrix needed to deliver services immediately to help more than 40 humanitarian organizations throughout the region affected by the disaster. Aidmatrix quickly created a Windows Azure account and got its aid application up and running in two hours.

The University of Washington Baker Laboratory also works to save lives by developing cures for diseases such as HIV, malaria and anthrax. When scientists at the laboratory needed more computational power for their research on salmonella, they chose Windows Azure for instant access to high-performance computing capabilities and on-demand scalability.

Here are two examples of how academics, scientists and humanitarian organizations are using Windows Azure and the power of the cloud to make an impact around the world.

(Today, Microsoft is improving Windows Azure with a series of updates to its platform, offering customers greater value, simplicity and interoperability. More details of today’s update can be found in the Windows Azure blog.)

Rapid Delivery of Services and Solutions

After a disaster one of the biggest challenges for humanitarian organizations is matching the intentions of well-meaning donors with the realities of needs on the ground. Aidmatrix works with government, business and humanitarian organizations to meet this challenge by providing software that helps identify specific requests, locate resources, and route them accordingly, so partners can focus on saving lives.

Michael Ross, vice president of delivery, oversees Aidmatrix’ technology services and the support needed to keep its operation running. Previously, Aidmatrix built datacenters in the United States, but latency issues forced the organization to begin locating them around the world, closer to where relief organizations carry out their work. Building out private datacenters in geographically dispersed, hard-to-reach locations, consumed significant amounts of time and money. So when the earthquake in Japan struck, Aidmatrix relied on Windows Azure, rather than spend time and money building its own local datacenter.

“We wanted a solution that was not only very scalable, but that was also close to the primary user community,” Ross says. “With Windows Azure we shifted our focus from building out and testing new infrastructure and load capabilities, to quickly deploying our solution to the users on the ground.”

Once the solution was completed, Aidmatrix worked with its primary partner on the ground, Second Harvest Japan, to build an emergency response portal. It allowed donations from around the world to immediately be channeled to humanitarian organizations.

Says Ross: “Disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti or the Japanese earthquake and tsunami drive a large amount of media attention, which can generate a nearly instantaneous traffic spike. We need the capability to handle traffic spikes a thousand percent higher than a few days prior.”

Streamlined Billing Information and Spending Caps for Windows Azure Customers as part of the improved account management experience
Streamlined Billing Information and Spending Caps for Windows Azure Customers as part of the improved account management experience
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In the first four weeks alone, Aidmatrix and its partners helped deliver more than $500,000 worth of basic relief supplies, 2,000 computers and two radiation detectors. The savings have already been significant, with an estimated drop in the company’s operating cost of 20 percent for the infrastructure running on Windows Azure. “Going with Windows Azure has given us the resources to make R&D investments that we otherwise wouldn't have had,” says Ross. “When you look at some of the other cloud providers, there isn't really any with as good of a geographic coverage model as Windows Azure.”

(More information about how Aidmatrix worked with Avanade and Accenture to reduce migration costs is available in this case study.)

Unlocking the Secrets and Structures of Proteins

Saving lives is also the goal of the University of Washington Baker Laboratory. As a pre-eminent computational biology institution, Baker Lab focuses its research on understanding protein structures, the molecules that perform a variety of functions within human cells. A protein’s particular role is determined by its three-dimensional structure. Scientists hope that getting a better understanding of the dynamics between structure and role will help them create new types of proteins for use in treatments such as vaccines for salmonella.

Baker Laboratory’s Research Fellow Nikolas Sgourakis sees Windows Azure as a valuable partner in his quest to understand salmonella and develop vaccines more effectively:

“With pathogens such as salmonella, we can't afford to collect all the data needed to solve the structure conventionally. But using computational methods such as search algorithms allows us to provide meaningful models of the protein structure with much less data.”

Those computational methods can take time, but Sgourakis found that Windows Azure provided all the high-performance computing power needed, and the pace of Sgourakis’ work was accelerated by multiple days. Windows Azure also eliminated the need for Baker Labs to assign a researcher to manage the system, allowing scientists to focus on what they do best: discovering protein structures and developing vaccines.

“For the first time, we’ve been able to develop three-dimensional models for a protein structure that are incredibly realistic and help explain some of the complementary data in our research,” says Sgourakis. “Having access to Windows Azure has helped us turn a very limited amount of data into a piece of textbook-worthy research and established a method for research that should pave the way for similar breakthroughs.”

Sgourakis’ best guess is that building a computing platform like Windows Azure from scratch would take hundreds of hours.

Stay Tuned for More to Come

In ways such as those cited above, Windows Azure, together with customers around the world, is saving lives and helping solve today’s toughest problems. With the December Windows Azure updates, customers can continue to harness the power of the cloud — on their own terms — and put all the resources of Windows Azure to work.

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