Cybera Lends a Hand to Australian eResearch

Cybera Senior Developer Everett Toews travelled to Melbourne, AU, in the summer of 2011 to collaborate with the National eResearch Collaboration Tools and Resources (NeCTAR) team and other Australian groups interested in cloud technologies. Below, Everett shares some insights on the visit as well as advice for the development of research clouds.

Tell us a bit about your background…
In 2009, I joined Cybera as a Senior Developer, but almost immediately took a deep dive into the world of operations and system administration. It's been a fascinating journey into a world that I was really only peripherally aware of before. I've gained a whole new appreciation for the work that system administrators do and I've learned about the kinds of things that can make their lives easier, such as well-written log files. It's made me a better developer and given me additional respect and understanding of operations.

Why did you travel to Australia?
The National eResearch Collaboration Tools and Resources (NeCTAR) team, working out of the University of Melbourne, has embarked on the ambitious goal of creating a nationally accessible cloud for eResearch. Based on their analysis, due diligence, and with some input from Cybera Vice-President, Technology John Shillington, they selected OpenStack as the platform for their Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) cloud. The Cybera Development Team has already done a couple of OpenStack deployments, such as for the Digital Accelerator for Innovation and Research (DAIR) and Cloud-Enabled Space Weather Platform (CEWSP) projects, both funded by CANARIE. So, we offered to lend a helping hand as a means to collaborate and strengthen the bonds between our organizations. You can read more about the NeCTAR program here.

I also took the opportunity to give presentations to a number of organizations around Australia who are interested in cloud computing. These organizations —€” all of whom have a background in high-performance computing (HPC) —€” include the Victorian Partnership for Advanced Computing (VPAC), the Victorian eResearch Strategic Initiative (VeRSI) and iVEC. First, I gave them a presentation on Cybera, the importance of cyberinfrastructure, and where Cybera is taking the future of cyberinfrastructure in Alberta (my thanks to Robin Winsor for supplying the presentation and vision for Cybera).

Next, I told them about the specific technologies we're using to enable this future. In presenting to organizations with this kind of background, I focused on bridging the worlds of HPC and cloud computing. I told them not only about OpenStack, but of StarCluster too, a project out of MIT that allows users to run clusters in the cloud, and how Cybera modified it to work with OpenStack.

What can NeCTAR and Australia learn from CANARIE's DAIR Cloud?
When building our first cloud we made the inevitable missteps and misconfigurations — all the while learning what makes an OpenStack cloud tick. We took the lessons learned from those missteps and wrote scripts to automate our way through the maze of deployment, and documented the correct path where we couldn't automate it.

This documentation and these scripts are easy to share via email, but the real learning comes from collaboration —€” getting together to work on the NeCTAR deployment together, having the time to discuss new and different strategies based on the requirements for the NeCTAR cloud, and the informal discussions that happen over lunch or after work. It was during these times that I really felt like a part of the NeCTAR team.

Is there anything you think that NeCTAR should try to avoid?
Man-eating sharks. Jellyfish. Poisonous snakes and spiders. The list goes on…

With respect to the cloud, the No. 1 thing to avoid is any kind of barrier to using the NeCTAR cloud resources. Always keep the barriers low. Anytime there might be a notion to add a form or an approval process, it needs to be examined to see if it will actually be beneficial in any way. If not, disregard it. A rule of thumb in publishing is that any time you add an equation to a book, you halve the sales. I would like to see a rule of thumb in cloud computing where any time you add a process in order to access the cloud, you halve the number of users.

In your opinion, how does cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary teams, such as Cybera in Canada working with NeCTAR in Australia, add value to these projects or organizations?
We've already gone through the entire process of learning how to build an OpenStack cloud, and have done it twice now. I think we were able to impart much of that knowledge and experience to the highly capable NeCTAR team. They've been eager to collaborate from the start and I know that it's paid off for both organizations. We've already learned a lot from the NeCTAR team, due to the differences in our OpenStack cloud deployments and how we both went about the installation and configuration process. We're looking forward to continuing the collaboration and learning process.

Did you have any time to explore Australia on your own?
I couldn't resist the temptation to do a bit of scuba diving while I was there. I have been diving since 2004. I love exploring the alien environment of the underwater world. I log all of my dives at TotalBottomTime.com (shameless plug).

What differences did you notice between the cultures in Australia and Canada?
Literally, the first difference I bumped into was the tendency for people to walk on the left-hand side of the sidewalk. During the first stroll after arriving, I was walking down the right-hand side of the sidewalk and constantly dodging and bumping into people. It felt like I was in the movie "Inception" and Australia's subconscious had noticed me and was trying to eliminate me. It didn't take me too long to realize it made more sense to walk on the left hand side along with everyone else.

Another difference I was unprepared for was the ubiquitous coffee culture in Australia. When I first walked into a coffee shop I was stymied by the array of options. I tried to order a "coffee", but was met with only a blank stare. I later learned that it was the Italian immigrants who brought their coffee culture with them to Australia, and that Starbucks-style coffee was not nearly as pervasive here as it is in Canada. After learning what the names for various ways to prepare coffee were, I finally settled on the Long Macchiato as my coffee of choice.

What were some similarities between the cultures in Australia and Canada?
I think our cultures share a similar work ethic. We're both prepared to do what it takes to get the job done while still maintaining a life/work balance.

In terms of the economy, I would say that, at the moment, both of our economies are very much dependent on natural resources. In Canada, it's oil and gas, whereas in Australia, it's mining. However, both countries are looking to expand their horizons and put more emphasis on a knowledge-based economy built on a foundation of cyberinfrastructure. Natural resources won't last forever, and it's much better to begin the transition now rather than waiting until it's too late.

Do you have any other comments on the development of the NeCTAR research cloud?
I firmly believe that Australia is on the right track. Providing a nationally available cloud to all researchers is a lofty but realistic goal. Now is the time to do it. The technology is ready and the people are ready. Investing in cyberinfrastructure can only benefit the Australian economy.