Google Enters Budding On-Demand Supercomputing Business

Google is now offering Preemptible Virtual Machines (or VMs), a new class of computing resources that can be rented for a steep discount and shut down at any time. The only caveat is that customers must be willing to yield the computing resource on short notice. The solution is ideal for universities and companies that can’t or don’t want to buy their own expensive supercomputers. By offering this service, Google is entering an area dominated, up until now at least, by Amazon Web Services’ short-term use program, Spot Instances.

The service is offered at up to 70 percent off standard pricing since the model relies on providing computer processing that Google is not using. Now that Google is a competitor, says The New York Times, it’s “likely to increase the number of ways these resources are used while lowering prices.”


Google is also involved in machine learning, a tool for finding new patterns in large data sets. NYT recounts how, using Google, Broad Institute cancer researchers used 51,200 computing cores to go through billions of ways human genes interrelate, to look for promising areas of research. Analysis, which would have taken 30 years on a single computer server, took a couple of hours and cost $4,000.

But, says NYT, “if Google is serious about offering an alternative to AWS, it still has a way to go.” In April, AWS bought ClusterK, a company that specializes in cloud supercomputing, and plans to compete with companies like Cycle Computing to teach potential customers how to use the service.

Cycle Computing chief executive Jason Stowe notes that machine learning has begun to actually lead research. “What happens in Life Sciences, where they have used lots of computers for a long time, tends to lead what happens elsewhere,” he says. “The first time we started doing cloud supercomputing it was drug discovery, then financial services, then materials science. Now it’s not just analysis, it’s directing future decisions.”

According to Google’s beta announcement in May, a number of companies have already been using Preemptible VMs, including Citadel, Descartes Labs and Clusterfuzz.

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