An ARDC case study

Since 2012, the ARDC Nectar Research Cloud has been providing Australia’s research community with fast, self-service access to large-scale computing infrastructure, supporting over 21,000 users and 5,000 projects across all fields of research.

Nectar - Prof James McCaw
Prof James McCaw leads a team of researchers who conduct infectious disease modelling and epidemiological analysis on the ARDC Nectar Research Cloud. Image: Ed Sloane/ARDC

January 2022 marked the 10-year anniversary of the ARDC Nectar Research Cloud, the world’s first national federated cloud dedicated to research.

Over its decade of operation, it has supported more than 5,000 projects across all fields of research — projects that have contributed to positive outcomes for society, human health and the environment, both in Australia and internationally.

“It’s an exciting milestone for a vital, unique Australian research infrastructure,” said Carmel Walsh, Director of eResearch Infrastructure and Services at the ARDC.

Nectar provides Australia’s research community with fast, interactive, self-service access to large-scale computing infrastructure, software and data, and is a powerful platform for collaboration. Specifically designed for research computing, it has defined and established research computing standards that enable collaboration on a global scale.

Nectar is supported by the Australian Government through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS). Nectar nodes are hosted in Australia and New Zealand by: The University of Melbourne, Monash University, the Tasmanian Partnership for Advanced Computing, QCIF, Intersect, Swinburne University and the University of Auckland.

Dr Stephen Giugni OAM, Director of Research Computing Services at The University of Melbourne said, “The University of Melbourne shares Nectar’s excitement at reaching this milestone. As the foundation node, we take pride that many of our staff who were involved with establishing Nectar are all still involved in creating the future of this resource for the Australian research community.”

Since its launch 10 years ago, Nectar has supported:

  • 21,401 users
  • 5,009 research projects
  • 414 Australian Research Council (ARC) grants
  • 186 National Health and Medical Research Council grants
  • 35 Australian universities
  • 18 ARC centres of excellence
  • 9 ARC industrial transformation hubs and training centres
  • 20 cooperative research centres and projects
  • 15 NCRIS capabilities
  • 28 research platforms / virtual laboratories
  • 2,875 research papers
  • > 1.2 million virtual-machine instances
  • > 2.3 billion virtual processor hours.

An International Success Story

Nectar is seen internationally as an exemplar of national digital research infrastructure and a trailblazer in using open-source cloud computing for research. Nectar pioneered the use of OpenStack open-source cloud software technology, which is now used by many large-scale federated research clouds, including the European EGI Federated Cloud.

In 2021, the Financial Times suggested that the campaign to create a national research cloud for the United States might draw inspiration from Nectar. Since then, US academics have sought our advice on creating a national research cloud.

Also in 2021, the ARDC joined the technical working group for the Global Open Science Cloud Initiative, and Nectar staff were interviewed by the UK Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation to help develop a business case for a national research cloud in the UK.

Essential Infrastructure for Australian Research

Nectar is a vital resource used by thousands of Australian researchers to store and analyse data and run computations and software across all fields of research. More than 200 research services are hosted on Nectar — national infrastructure facilities, databases, data repositories, large-scale research platforms and virtual research environments — and are used by more than 50,000 researchers worldwide.

The way in which Nectar has supported Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates its important role in Australia’s research ecosystem. Professor of Mathematical Biology James McCaw from the University of Melbourne holds an honorary appointment at the Doherty Institute and is an invited expert on the Australian Health

Protection Principal Committee, the government’s peak decision-making committee for public health emergency management and disease control. His team has contributed to the Australian Government’s response to the pandemic by modelling potential scenarios using Nectar and other computational resources.

Interestingly, Prof McCaw and his team were the first research group to use Nectar when it launched in 2012. They have continued to use it ever since to study influenza, malaria and now COVID-19, modelling how viruses and other pathogens infect the host and spread through the population.

“If this resource [Nectar] was not there, it would be a nightmare,” said Prof McCaw. “A lot of my team’s work is absolutely contingent on this resource or equivalent resources continuing to exist. That it has been so stable and reliable over the last decade has been very important.

“[Nectar] has been essential to support and grow the computational capability of my research team, which has continued to grow since 2012.”

Members of the Infectious Disease Modelling team at the University of Melbourne
Members of the Infectious Disease Modelling team at the University of Melbourne. From left to right: Punya Alahakoon (PhD student), Ke Li (PhD student), Dr Rob Moss, Prof James McCaw, Dr Freya Shearer, Dr David Price, Yang Yue (PhD student). Image: Ed Sloane/ARDC

What’s Next for Nectar?

Today, Nectar hosts most of the research platforms supported by the ARDC Platforms program. The range of research areas and technologies supported by these research platforms includes artificial intelligence, machine learning, sensitive data, drone technology, ecology, advanced imaging, and genomics. To support these platforms, the ARDC has invested in leading-edge infrastructure for the Nectar Research Cloud, with large-memory machines, graphics processing units, and new and separate regions of Nectar for hosting sensitive-data platforms.

Having doubled the research computing capacity of Nectar in 2021, we are launching a suite of new services in 2022. These new national services are designed to accelerate research computing over the next decade. Already this year, we have launched our Virtual Desktop Service, which allows hundreds of new users to more easily access cloud compute resources.

We are also moving to usage-based allocation quotas to support bursty usage and new functionality and services in the national research cloud, as well as more efficient use of cloud resources. A national GPU and Large Memory Machine Service will be launched later this year so that researchers can run more complex and larger scale applications, including artificial intelligence and machine learning workloads, in the national research cloud.

The use of new and innovative technologies at a national scale remains a cornerstone of Nectar. Through our innovation program, we are exploring the benefits of data processing units for improved cybersecurity, and we are leading the Australian Research Container Orchestration Services (ARCOS) project, which is developing best practices and standards for using containers for research software. Containers make it easier to share research workflows and software, and deploy them across different compute platforms, and support the reproducibility of research results.

 

Written by Jo Savill, ARDC. Edited by Mary O’Callaghan. Reviewed by Dr Paul Coddington, Carmel Walsh, Rosie Hicks, Ian Duncan and Prof James McCaw.

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