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Oracle database in the cloud floated at Harvard lab

A lab at Harvard Medical School is one of the first customers to test Oracle cloud computing, an initiative Oracle announced last week.

Last May, Peter Tonellato, a scientist at Harvard University, was reading through the forums on the Amazon Web Services website when he came across a note. Bill Hodak, a senior product manager at Oracle Corp., was asking anyone interested in experimenting with Oracle databases in the cloud to contact him.

Tonellato runs the Laboratory for Personalized Medicine at the Center for Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School and had been looking for an easier way to deploy and manage large databases. He contacted Hodak and by June 24 was up and running with an Oracle database, Ruby on Rails and OpenXava and ready to launch his applications.

Tonellato and the Laboratory for Personalized Medicine (LPM) are using cloud computing services to run virtual clinical trials on a drug called Warfarin, used on patients at risk for blood clots. The drug, however, carries risks for some individuals. Tonellato has created clinical avatars of patients using genetic background information and has now tested Warfarin dosing on close to 100 million of the virtual patients.

So, when it came to data collection for the project, Tonellato wasn't looking for any additional technical complexities. Oracle cloud computing offered LPM a way to get up and running in a fraction of the time it would have taken to get the hardware and install and configure a traditional database, among other tasks.

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See the other news Oracle made at OpenWorld.

The LPM is an extreme example of Oracle's latest foray into cloud computing. At the OpenWorld conference last week, Oracle announced a partnership to offer its computing (database, servers and storage) in Amazon Web Services LLC's hosted environment.

"Our goal was to enable our customers, partners and even ourselves to utilize the cloud in a very simple, easy-to-get-started way," Chuck Rozwat, executive vice president for product development at Oracle, said last week. "Amazon seems to have gotten a head start on everyone else at this point, but we'll definitely be supporting other cloud environments."

The company expects customers to initially use Oracle cloud computing as a way to back up their database, Sushil Kumar, senior director of product management at Oracle, said during a session at OpenWorld last week.

"We're talking about getting a fully configured hardware and Oracle environment up and running in less than 30 minutes," he said.

Under the Oracle-Amazon agreement, customers sign up for Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), where they essentially run virtual Linux machines, Kumar said. With that, they can use Amazon's Simple Storage Service, a cloud storage queue, to store their files. Amazon storage costs 15 cents per gigabyte per month in the United States and 18 cents per gigabyte per month in Europe. Bandwidth costs are 10 cents per gigabyte per month incoming and 10 cents and 17 cents for the U.S. and Europe, respectively, for outgoing.

"The first thing we're trying to do, and the most basic, is to allow people to use cloud computing as a viable platform, which requires us to remove hurdles for licensing and support," Kumar said.

Oracle customers can transfer all existing licenses to the cloud. While Oracle's current licensing is based on the number of processors, that doesn't translate to the virtual environment. With the new arrangement, each virtual core is counted as an actual core, meaning four virtual cores will count as one processor, Kumar said.

Oracle's cloudy future

"The first type of applications will be testing or people actually doing development," Rozwat said. "I believe people will migrate more serious mission-critical applications to the cloud later. People will try it out first, get the business processes down, get the technical processes down then move ahead."

For development purposes, Oracle and Amazon are making available Amazon Machine Images (AMIs) consisting of Oracle database on Oracle Enterprise Linux with Apex code.

Customers first need to sign up for Amazon's EC2 services, download the command line tools and then pick any of the AMIs. More information is available at the Oracle Cloud Computing Center.

Oracle has established best practices for backing up databases to the cloud using RMAN, which compresses and encrypts data and then sends it to Amazon in the cloud.

"Why backup to the cloud? Unlike tapes, the storage is always accessible," Kumar said. "When you restore one file or one database it's much faster to restore from the cloud rather than call someone and have someone ship tapes and load it. Disks are more reliable than tapes and Amazon makes several redundant copies."

Oracle is working to establish a procedure by which Amazon or other cloud computing vendors can ship data back to the customer on tape or via USB drives, Kumar said.

Eventually, Oracle hopes customers will establish their own cloud environments where groups within the enterprise can request it for sandbox requirements, new application development and other activities.

Oracle and Intel last week said they were collaborating to make cloud computing more efficient and secure. Under the partnership, Oracle and Intel Corp. have collaborated to increase performance of Oracle databases running virtualized on Intel Xeon processors by 17% and will further collaborate on the security of virtual machines running in the cloud. The two firms will also push standards that enable the portability of virtual machine images.

For Tonellato, the opportunity to avoid building a massive data warehouse, an effort he has been through more than once, was too good to pass up.

"One of my primary objectives when I went to Harvard was I decided I would separate myself from that pain as much as possible," Tonellato said. "I was looking for something different, and that's why when I approached cloud computing, I wanted to see if it was as robust as hype had indicated."

To date, Oracle in the cloud has lived up to Tonellato's expectations, reducing the time it takes to run clinical trials.

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