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Summer school in Russia explores research in the cloud


Microsoft Research’s various summer schools provide excellent opportunities to work with our academic partners to foster the next generation of computer scientists and breakthrough applications. So with great anticipation, I headed to Moscow for the 2014 summer school in Russia, which took place over the sunny days of July 30 to August 6.

The summer school is Microsoft Research’s largest annual event in Russia. Since its inception in 2009, it has tackled a wide array of cutting-edge computing topics, including:

This year’s event, which was co-sponsored by Lomonosov Moscow State University and Yandex (one of Russia’s leading Internet companies), focused on conducting research in the cloud. Our goal was to train a new generation of researchers to build cloud-based tools and services that will support scientific discovery in this age of “big data.”

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Faculty, students, and staff of the 2014 summer school in Moscow
Faculty, students, and staff of the 2014 summer school in Moscow

At past summer schools, we’ve focused on assembling a student body consisting primarily of young computer scientists. This year, we expanded the student selection to include researchers from any academic discipline who have an understanding of basic scientific data analysis and programming skills. More than 600 students and professionals, including graduate and advanced undergraduate students as well as young scientists and developers, applied. After a very selective process, 42 students, representing universities and research institutions in Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine, were admitted to the seven-day course. The attendees included candidates doing trailblazing research in mathematics, computer science, geology, engineering, cryptology, space monitoring, photonics and optics, bioinformatics, and aero and plasma physics.

The faculty for the school was selected for their wide range of experience in research applications of cloud computing. Tony Hey from Microsoft Research gave the opening address and set the context for the rest of the week. Professor Geoffrey Fox of Indiana University (United States) covered topics related to scalable data analysis algorithms and the rapidly expanding open-source cloud software stack. Professor Sergey Berezin of Lomonosov Moscow State University talked about the challenges of building client-plus-cloud applications, describing the creation of desktop and web applications that use the cloud for analysis and data visualization. Professor Paul Watson of Newcastle University (United Kingdom) lectured on cloud workflows for scientific applications, hybrid cloud security, and cost models; and Sergey Bykov of Microsoft Research discussed a next-generation cloud-computing platform, the recently released Orleans cloud-programming toolkit.

The august faculty notwithstanding, the students proved to be the real stars of the school. We started them off with a one-day training on how to use Microsoft Azure and provided each student with a small Azure account to use for their projects. At the end of the first day, we asked them to form into small teams to build a cloud application. With only one full day and three days outside of class hours to work on their projects, the outcomes, which they presented on the final day of class, were simply astounding. The topics ranged from highly scientific areas, such as bioinformatics and satellite orbital guidance, to social networks and the Internet of Things. The students integrated ideas from the lectures and truly understood why the cloud is a very different paradigm of computing than any they had encountered in the past.

The faculty honored the best projects in four categories:

  • Most original: the winning team built a social network for musicians called Cloud Tunes. This application combined the usual social network topic-based communication system with geo-location, so that a band looking for a new member could select one based on the musician’s location on Bing maps.
  • Most scalable: the award went to a parallel computer-graphics movie-rendering system capable of taking a script of viewpoint and camera move positions or simulation parameters. The winning team did a complete analysis of the performance and scalability of their system.
  • Most elegant: the selected project integrated a number of open-source cloud software tools and built a real-time sentiment analysis of stack overflow questions and responses on Microsoft Azure. The application could plot storms of interest around various software releases, including the latest release of Visual Studio.
  • Best overall: this honor went to an interactive cloud service that takes a user’s English text and discovers subtle grammar errors. By building on Microsoft Web N-gram services, the winning team produced extremely impressive results.

The faculty had a difficult time selecting the winners, as so many of the teams demonstrated creativity, collaboration, and amazing energy. Yandex provided gifts for the winners and hosted a lovely end-of-school party at their Moscow headquarters. Microsoft Research is already looking forward to next year’s summer school in Russia, where we will again strive to push computer science and research applications to new heights.

Dennis Gannon, Director, Microsoft Research

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