From cloudy to clear: Microsoft Azure for research and teaching


More than 200 services on the cloud: Microsoft Azure supports employees in research and teaching at the University of Vienna as of now – in compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Some employees are already using the Microsoft Azure public cloud platform, either on their own initiative or via the ZID’s test mode. In doing so, they advance research projects or bring students closer to the cloud services. The University of Vienna now offers this fee-based service to all employees on a regular basis. This enables quick and easy access to more than 200 cloud services.

From the A in analysis to the W in web

There is a wide range of services: Infrastructure such as virtual computers, storage space or databases can be flexibly rented in Azure. Another division encompasses services that work with artificial intelligence. For instance, the automatic conversion from speech to text and from text to speech is especially interesting for researchers. Container services, such as Azure Kubernetes or Azure Functions, are available for software development and management. Furthermore, the portfolio also includes machine learning tools. For example, these support (prospective) data scientists in developing and providing their models, with which they can analyse large quantities of raw data. For a full list of all services, please visit the Microsoft Azure website.

The Azure services are subject to a charge, but the financial advantages of a cloud platform come into play here: Users do not have to cover investment costs for hardware or software in advance, and they only pay for the resources that they need (pay as you go). You can estimate the costs in advance by using the Azure pricing calculator.

Use Azure centrally via the University instead of independently – switching is worth it

Besides, employees who have used Azure independently up to now can profit financially if they obtain Microsoft Azure officially via the University of Vienna. Fabian Jusufi from the central support unit Coordination Digital Transformation, who coordinated the launch, explains: “Thanks to a special framework agreement for research institutions throughout Europe, the University receives a 15 per cent discount on the usual price of the Azure services. And a Microsoft support plan which guarantees quick response times is also included in the agreement.”

But, aside from the costs, it is also advisable to switch to the official service of the University of Vienna because it is the only way of using Azure in compliance with the GDPR. “It was a great challenge to set up the Azure environment of the University of Vienna in compliance with the GDPR when the public cloud platform was launched,” Jusufi adds.

This was achieved, for instance, by limiting the computing centres to those located within the EU, as well as by collaborating closely with the IT Security team of the ZID and the Data Protection Officer of the University of Vienna. This ensures that Azure services can also be used for research data that require special protection. “We know from the test operation, for example at the Faculty of Computer Science, that the almost unmanageable amount of services is suitable for numerous applications in research and teaching,” Jusufi continues, “that is why it was a particular concern of ours to make Azure available throughout the University.”

Azure in practice

Wolfgang Klas has already gathered experience with Microsoft Azure in the test operation, in the context of both research and teaching. He is a professor at the Faculty of Computer Science and head of the Research Group Multimedia Information Systems. His students use numerous services in their projects, such as virtual computers and networks, various databases (SQL, MySQL, Azure Cosmos DB), app services, Azure Functions, Azure Active Directory based Identity Management, blockchain services or container services and Kubernetes via Azure.

Klas draws a first conclusion: “Using Azure enables us to carry out a series of innovative projects successfully by using the most state-of-the-art IT approaches. In learning with Azure, students familiarise themselves with the latest technologies in an easy and flexible manner, with which they will be confronted as graduates later on in the professional world. Otherwise, we would not be able to adequately convey these technologies to the students.” Apart from the services used by Wolfgang Klas and his students, this also applies particularly to the services in the areas of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The Research Group Scientific Computing of the Faculty of Computer Science, which also participated in the test operation, uses the public cloud for high-performance computing (HPC). An advantage for the research group is always having the latest hardware and software at their disposal. Employees can test HPC applications flexibly on the latest computer architectures and evaluate the performance potentials of different system configurations. The costs remain predictable at all times.

Public cloud services have further decisive advantages for both research groups: High investment costs for on-site systems and long waiting times when purchasing these systems, which have become typical in times of supply bottlenecks, are no longer a problem. Every Azure service is ready for use within a few seconds or minutes and can be adapted or disconnected just as quickly and flexibly to meet the respective needs.

Wolfgang Klas is confident in view of these advantages: “The learning effects through the use of cloud services are manifold for both students and us teachers, and they show very quickly. Most students are highly interested in the services, they are very grateful to be able to use them in the context of their studies and, finally, they are impressed by their power. I no longer want to do without Azure in teaching.”

Further information about Microsoft Azure at the University of Vienna

[Translate to Englisch:] Illustration Azure