David J. Malan’s Harvard University computer science students completed projects last fall that would have proved difficult — if not impossible — without cloud computing.

Malan secured a grant from Amazon Web Services (AWS), Amazon.com Inc.’s cloud-computing service, that let his students do coursework with the company’s global computer infrastructure–virtual servers that allow students to complete data-heavy assignments without bogging down or crashing the campus’s hardware.  

"It was a huge win for us pedagogically," said Malan, who has been at Harvard since 1995. "It makes possible resources that universities might not be able to provide for students."

The AWS grant gives $100 in server usage for each student in a class. The grant is good for up to one year, and the company plans on distributing up to $1 million in grants every year, according to Amazon’s web site.

Amazon’s cloud-computing grant could prove useful for campus-based researchers struggling to complete demanding projects with university computer equipment. AWS servers could provide researchers with a massive amount of storage capability rarely seen on college campuses. Applying for the grant also could save a college tens of thousands of dollars annually by eliminating the need for new and updated hardware and software for data-intensive projects and long-term research.

Having access to AWS, Malan said, let Harvard’s 330 introductory computer science instructors see student work without making students go through a complex process that included eMailing computer code. Cloud computing streamlined an otherwise bulky and time-consuming process, Malan said.

"We could become the students and look at their account in the native environment," he said. "It was a very … inefficient process in many ways before that."

Malan’s computer science students were given an assignment last year that required them to recover digital files that had been erased from a flash card. Students had to create a tool that found each file and restored the photos. The project was data-intensive and required greater computing power, so the AWS servers made the project possible, Malan said.

The Harvard computer class also had to create and use a computer-based dictionary and spell checker, which called for more server space.

Harvard isn’t the only university that has taken advantage of Amazon’s cloud-computing offer for schools. Student-run computer initiatives at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Texas, and the University of California, San Diego, have been supported by AWS grants over the past year.

AWS also is available for commercial purposes, according to its web site. The service costs about 10 cents per hour and offers various storage capacities ranging from 160 GB to 1,690 GB. Customers can purchase anywhere between 1.7 GB and 15 GB of memory.

Using cloud computing to expand curriculum and pedagogy, Malan said, doesn’t cost colleges and universities any money for ramping up campus servers and infrastructure, because Amazon’s equipment handles those data-heavy projects.

"It’s no silver bullet for education at large, but for any course that has computational needs or programming involved, it’s a very interesting opportunity," Malan said, adding that his computer students will use AWS services again when classes convene in September. "For us, it was a very successful experience that we plan to repeat."

Educators can apply for one AWS grant for every course they teach, although they may not apply for more than two grants at a time for classes running concurrently. An application form is available on the AWS web site (http://aws.amazon.com/education/). Grants are administered quarterly; the next deadline for grant proposals is May 15.


Amazon Web Services grant

Harvard University