Long Yi and Peter van Heusden with part of SANBI’s computing infrastructure behind them


Researchers at the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) South African National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI) have come up with a way of stopping the endless cycle of individual computer hardware purchases, while still ensuring that researchers and students alike have the necessary computational resources to run their operations.

Their cloud computing-based solution is summarised in a new paper, recently presented at the Southern African Telecommunications Networks and Applications Conference that ran from 2 to 5 September 2012. The work was funded through the DST/NRF Research Chair in Bioinformatics and Public Health Genomics and the MRC Unit for Bioinformatics Capacity Development.

Bioinformatics involves the application of information theory and technology for the storage, retrieval and analysis of biological data. Naturally, it relies heavily on computers. And as SANBI hosts dozens of students and researchers, managing hardware becomes an important issue. Typically, each project or researcher would buy new machines, which was expensive and inefficient, with periods of high intensity use alternating with idle periods.

SANBI had originally devised a solution to this problem in 2009: employing virtual machine (VM) hosting. Instead of purchasing individual machines, the server infrastructure could be partitioned to create virtual machines, with workloads ranging from web server to high performance computing nodes. SANBI retained control of the networked servers on which the system ran, and individual users would simply access them. Computational resources could be distributed according to need, and a digital image could be created for each new student to run projects without risking core infrastructure and services.

But this solution still had one problem: it required manual logins and manipulations by administrators to create VMs. Now, using the OpenNebula cloud management system running on DELL servers, software developers Long Yi and Peter van Heusden have set up a private cloud that automates a lot of the work of creating a new VM. It’s easier to manage, cheaper, faster – a new server can be created in less than 30 minutes, compared to a trip to the electronics store – and more efficient.

“In plain English,” says Professor Christoffels, “if I want a server with 50GB of RAM and 1TB of disk space, I don’t go and buy a machine with those specs. Instead, I buy a disk to fit into our DELL hardware and our virtual environment will make sure that those resources are available to me. And if I’m lazy and don’t use it, then SANBI will consume it while it is lying idle.”