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“The sky’s the limit”: Allen School launches new FOCI Center at the UW to shape the future of cloud computing

Seattle skyline viewed from a three-lane highway framed by street lamps, with vivid blue sky and fluffy clouds

The Allen School has established a new center at the University of Washington that aims to catalyze the next generation of cloud computing technology. The Center for the Future of Cloud Infrastructure, or FOCI, will cultivate stronger partnerships between academia and industry to enable cloud-based systems to reach new heights when it comes to security, reliability, performance, and sustainability.

“The first generation of the cloud disrupted conventional computing but focused on similar engineering abstractions, which is typical of many new technologies,” said Allen School professor Ratul Mahajan, co-director of the FOCI Center and, until recently, co-founder and CEO of cloud computing startup Intentionet. “Now that cloud computing is on the cusp of a more radical transformation, this center will help usher in a new era by cultivating tighter partnerships between researchers and practitioners to address emerging bottlenecks and explore new opportunities.”

That transformation is being driven in large part by the rise in machine learning, edge computing, 5G and other burgeoning technologies. According to Mahajan’s Allen School colleague and center co-director Simon Peter, the demands of these new workloads — including exponential growth in the energy required to power their applications — will require researchers to rethink the full computing stack from the ground up. 

“Companies and consumers are seeking ever-greater levels of security, reliability and performance in the cloud at a reduced cost,” Peter noted. “Not just monetary cost, but also in terms of cost to the environment. For a while, thanks to Moore’s Law, we were gaining ground when it comes to energy efficiency. But now the gains have slowed or even reversed; for example, in the U.S. the energy demand for computation is growing twice as fast as solar and wind power. So we need to think holistically about the hardware-software interface and how to make cloud computing sustainable as well as resilient and secure.”

One of the areas that Peter and his colleagues are keen to explore is energy-aware cloud computing, which would enable tradeoffs between power and performance while making cloud applications resilient to disruption. Another potential avenue of inquiry concerns how the development of systems to effectively manage the variety of hardware accelerators used in settings such as disaggregated storage and emerging machine learning applications while minimizing latency, ensuring fairness, and meeting multi-dimensional resource needs — among other challenges.

Portrait collage of Arvind Krishnamurthy, Ratul Mahajan, and Simon Peter, with UW's block "W" logo in the lower right corner against a purple background
The co-directors of the new FOCI Center at the UW, top, from left: Arvind Krishnamurthy and Ratul Mahajan; bottom left: Simon Peter

How the center approaches these challenges will be informed by a technical advisory board comprising representatives of cloud companies Alibaba, Cisco, Google, Microsoft and VMware — all significant movers and shakers in the cloud space. Their input will help guide the center’s research toward real-world impact based on current trends, what problems they anticipate over a five to 10- year time horizon, and how solutions might be applied in practice. Center researchers will apply these practical insights to their pursuit of big, open-ended ideas, drawing upon cross-campus expertise in systems, computer architecture, networking, machine learning, data science, security, and more.

“Industry knows the pain points and technology trends; academia is adept at the exploratory, collaborative work that’s fundamental to solving hard problems,” noted Allen School professor and center co-director Arvind Krishnamurthy, who also serves as an advisor to UW machine learning spinout OctoML. “By bringing the two together, this center will not only yield compelling solutions but also contribute to the education of students who will go on to build these next-generation systems.”

The FOCI Center was seeded with industry commitments totaling $3.75 million over three years. The Allen School is hosting a launch event on the UW campus in Seattle today to connect faculty and student researchers with industry leaders interested in shaping the future of cloud computing.

“Seattle is the cloud city, both in weather and as home to the largest cloud companies, so it was only natural to establish a center focused on cloud computing and leverage the synergies between the UW’s research expertise and our local industry leadership of this space,” said Magdalena Balazinska, professor and director of the Allen School. ”When it comes to what we can accomplish together, I would say the sky’s the limit.”

To learn more, visit the FOCI Center website and read the coverage by GeekWire here.

Main photo credit: University of Washington