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5/23/2013
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Microsoft Cloud Gets Internet2 Expressway To Universities

Microsoft's cloud data centers get direct peering with Internet2, the high-speed network for education and research. This gives schools faster access to data.

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Students, staff and researchers at campuses taking advantage of Microsoft cloud services will see better performance and lower costs because of direct "peering" between Microsoft data centers and Internet2.

Internet2 is a high-speed network operated by a consortium of universities, which also makes services available to some other educational institutions including some K-12 school systems. Peering is an agreement between network operators to exchange traffic directly and without exacting tolls. This agreement will allow Internet2 to provide its members with expedited access to Microsoft cloud services, bypassing the public Internet. The deal also could give Microsoft an edge over Google, it's biggest rival in offering cloud services to higher education.

"Number one, it's a performance advantage because we'll be connecting on arguably the highest-performing network around," said Khalil Yazdi, program developer for cloud service partnerships at Internet2. For example, universities that are accustomed to operating their own Exchange servers for email also want to make sure they can get comparable performance from Microsoft's cloud service. Second, institutions that make routine use of Office 365 for email and collaboration applications will get access to bandwidth-hungry applications at the best pricing, he said.

[ Is it easier to cheat online? Read When Education Gets Too Virtual. ]

Meanwhile, researchers who are interested in taking advantage of Microsoft's Azure infrastructure as a service product for storage and processing on large amounts of data need to be able to move data in and out of the service as efficiently and economically as possible, Yazdi said. "Now is the time to make sure the network connections are up to carrying the load of expected activity," he said.

Through its Net+ program, Internet2 has been developing a catalog of cloud service offerings available on favorable terms negotiated by the consortium on behalf of educational institutions. Vidyo videoconferencing was one recent addition. Azure and Office 365, Microsoft's most successful cloud offerings, are also part of the program. Microsoft proved willing to negotiate many of the same compliance-related terms and conditions for Azure that it agreed to for Office 365, Yazdi said.

University of Washington CIO Kelli Trosvig said that the Internet2 negotiations with Microsoft have paid off in many ways, starting with the aggregation of demand for services from many institutions that allows access to services at the best possible pricing. Also, because hers is a major research institution with a need to handle medical research data and other sensitive information, she wouldn't have been able to take advantage of Microsoft cloud services at scale without the Internet2 deal, she said, both for compliance reasons and because the pricing wouldn't have paid off.

Although the peering deal will have a positive impact on University of Washington's access to email and collaborative applications, Trosvig said improving access to Azure storage, processing and SQL Server instances is more significant. "I have literally hundreds of researchers who want access to quick, scalable research infrastructure in a HIPPA-certified cloud," she said, referring to the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Scientists doing big-data analysis in fields such as molecular physics and astronomy will get a particular benefit from the ability to create more sophisticated models and "not have to be slowed down by commercial packets and network traffic," she said.

Of the Net+ services, a few others like Box file sharing also have direct peering with Internet2. Google does not. There is an existing peering relationship with Amazon Web Services, "but not at the level we'd like," meaning it's not equally available to all members, Yazdi said. "With all the cloud services, we have made it part of our expectations for the Net+ offerings that we'll route traffic wherever and whenever we can through the network."

Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.

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