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African Research Cloud takes shape

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Having a research cloud means researchers and universities no longer need to have their own on-site servers, says UCT's Sakkie Janse van Rensburg.
Having a research cloud means researchers and universities no longer need to have their own on-site servers, says UCT's Sakkie Janse van Rensburg.

South Africa's Inter-University Institute for Data-Intensive Astronomy (IDIA) has become the first African institute to launch a cloud-based data centre.

IDIA is a partnership between the University of Cape Town (UCT), North-West University, the University of Pretoria and the University of the Western Cape.

This initiative, which was launched last year, is administered by the partner institutions and is part of a three-year pilot project to establish the African Research Cloud.

"Having a research cloud means that researchers and universities no longer need to have their own on-site servers," says Sakkie Janse van Rensburg, UCT's executive director of information communication technology services.

Currently, the researchers are responsible for the data management.

Testing the system

At the moment, there are two proof of concept projects being run on the African Research Cloud: radio astronomy and genomics.

The institute was initially formed to deal with the big data challenges SA's 64-dish MeerKAT telescope and ultimately the giant Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will pose.

The SKA, which will be co-hosted by SA and Australia, will be the largest radio telescope in the world. Construction on phase one will begin in 2018, but the technology to handle its flood of data does not yet exist.

Professor Russ Taylor, an SKA research chair and founding director of the institute, says: "The [African Research Cloud] will build the capacity for South African researchers to work the data from MeerKAT and to make scientific breakthroughs in South Africa."

This is where ARCADE ? the African Resource Cloud Astronomy Development project ? comes in. It is a "focal point for the development and prototyping of ARC hardware and software resource deployment", the project said in response to questions.

"IDIA and ARC will provide the computing resources for researchers to transport, process, analyse their data in an efficient and streamlined way."

While radio astronomy has been a lynchpin in building SA's big data expertise, it is not the only field that needs to be able to process and analyse large quantities of data.

North-West University, in collaboration with the South African National Bioinformatics Institute based at the University of the Western Cape, will use the cloud to develop bioinformatics skills for genomics. Their proof of concept project aims to "develop a turnkey solution that commandline-na"ive researchers can access via a Web interface", says Boeta Pretorius, an IDIA board member and chief director of IT at North-West University.

Many researchers "have extremely limited exposure to formal training in computing at undergraduate level", he notes.

"Although the demonstration project has a deliberately narrow scope, we believe it will demonstrate that cloud environments can lower the barrier to entry for researchers with limited computer training to the world of big data analytics."

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