Google Offers Free Cloud Access to Colleges, Plays Catch Up to Amazon, Microsoft

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In several years, nearly all universities will have a cloud computing provider.

Google in June announced an education grant offering free credits for its cloud platform, with no credit card required, unlimited access to its suite of tools and training resources. Amazon and Microsoft’s cloud services both offer education programs, and now Google Cloud wants a part in shaping future computer scientists — and probably whatever they come up with using the tool.

“We want computer science students and faculty to experience Google Cloud Platform and learn what’s possible when you apply cloud computing to tough problems, just like we do at Google,” says Bram Bout, director of Google for Education.

Amazon Web Services has dominated the cloud service business by being around longest (2006) and nabbing corporate and governmental customers like Comcast, Adobe and the Department of Defense.

Microsoft’s cloud service, Azure, doesn’t fall too far behind, having launched in 2010 and doing business with GE Healthcare and DocuSign. Google Cloud launched in 2011, but has caught up to competitors to work with Best Buy, Kaplan and Khan Academy.

While it seems like everyone has carved out corners of the cloud business, linking up with schools comes with two advantages. On the one hand, Google and its cloud competitors can become the platform of choice as younger professionals and computer science students begin their careers. At the same time, cloud providers have a vested interest in the upstart businesses or ideas that result from these education discounts.

“Of course we’d be thrilled to see innovative ideas and even companies emerge from this, but the goal for the grants program is to help students and faculty discover our cloud and do incredible things,” Bout says.

Google breaking in?  

Amazon and Microsoft’s cloud services offer an education partnership in free trials or discounted pricing. For the time being, Microsoft Azure’s education program is not taking new applications and “oversubscribed,” the website reads. Amazon Web Services has an online application for its education program for teachers and students to get accounts, and Google is accepting applications from faculty members.

Google Cloud’s grant will allow U.S. faculty teaching computer science to apply for free credits and distribute them to students in the upcoming academic year, according to a blog post. The grant is only offered in the U.S. now, but Google says it plans to extend access to other places in the future.

Students can use the credits toward developing mobile apps on Google App Engine or experimenting with machine learning using Vision API and Translate API, among the other data and system administration tools available on the platform.

Aza Tulepbergenov, a third-year undergraduate at Boise State heads up a Google Developer Group chapter on campus that provides mentoring and support for young developers. The chapter president, who’s interning at Hewlett-Packard for the summer, says he hopes his program will apply for Google Cloud’s grant.

In a class last year that covered cloud computing, Tulepbergenov got experience using another cloud service, Amazon Web Services, but he’s curious to learn more about what Google has to offer. His department was able to secure a student discount from Amazon so his group could build a server that provides queuing time for client applications.

“I personally think that Google invests a lot in teaching other developers how to use their tools and platforms. It makes me think that Google’s platform has a bright future just because so many developers will get exposed to it,” he says.

Long range forecast: Cloud, cloud, cloud  

At Cornell University, computer science professor Ken Birman prepares students to use these platforms in his cloud computing course, which he says will spend a lot of time on Google’s new tools.

Birman calls Google Cloud “an obvious first choice” for validating his class' research systems using cutting-edge infrastructure. Up until now, he’s mainly used Amazon’s service, which also offers an education partnership for a free tier for limited access and has sent people to to schools to teach staff how to use it.

“Partnerships like the one between Google and Cornell are the key to a vibrant cycle of innovation, a steady stream of students ready for jobs at Google or elsewhere and also help us validate our best work,” Birman tells EdSurge.

“Our students have become very entrepreneurial, especially with the rapid growth of NYC Tech,” Cornell’s new incubator and tech training program, he says.

Birman says he expects students to develop major products, many of which go on to launch as product companies.

Thomas Ristenpart, associate professor at Cornell’s new tech campus, agrees that these educational programs prove valuable for teaching. Ristenpart says the free credits for Google Cloud help toward course projects that are otherwise “hard to fund.”

“Students would lose out on learning valuable skills needed in today’s cloud-heavy development ecosystem,” Ristenpart says.

Some professors already using Google Cloud in their classes in the last year have seen students’ work recognized in published papers and presented at industry conferences. Indranil Gupta, associate professor in computer science at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, teaches a graduate class on advanced distributed systems where students created research and entrepreneurial cloud-based projects using Google Cloud.

Gupta suspects research results would be the same had his classes used Amazon or Microsoft, but most students prefer Amazon for its ease. Having launched earliest in 2006, Amazon has “matured for a while,” Gupta says.

“The ability to access virtual machines and storage on demand without buying your own cluster is really cool. And that's what Google Cloud provides, as does AWS and Azure,” he says.

“Public clouds are here to stay a while, and all engineers and many non-engineers are rushing to learn how to use them.”

His students have published research including a scheduling framework for processing large datasets and a virtual amphitheater for live broadcasting performances. To Gupta, all computer science and engineering classes need access to clusters so students can write programs and crunch data. He believes in introducing students to cloud computing in their freshmen and sophomore years.

Still, it remains a hassle having to rebuild his course material every time a cloud service trial or grant ends, Gupta adds. Because the companies often offer academic credits to use their cloud service for an academic year or limited time or access, the free trials work better for Gupta’s graduate students for one-off projects than undergraduate students who need a deeper understanding of the platforms, he says.

Cloud leaders

Although Google entered the cloud computing scene about two years after Microsoft and five years after Amazon, users and experts still debate performance of one over the other.

In August, IT research firm Gartner reviewed the major cloud “Infrastructure as a Service” providers worldwide based on each one’s ability to execute its offerings and completeness of vision. The report evaluated its service features, and public and private offerings and applications, placing providers on a quadrant of challengers, leaders, niche players and visionaries.

Gartner’s Magic Quadrant identifies Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure as leaders, whereas Google is considered a visionary — showing a promising vision but lacking in ability to execute.

“Despite a change in leadership at the beginning of 2016, we believe that there is still insufficient forward movement in service features, sales, marketing, globalization and partner ecosystem to make Google broadly attractive as a strategic cloud Infrastructure as a Service provider in 2016,” the report says.

“Google Cloud Platform has a solid and well-implemented core of fundamental Infrastructure as a Service and Platform as a Service capabilities, but its feature set and scope of services are not as broad as that of the market leaders,” the study continues.

Gartner points to missing features vital to established organizations as well as startups, such as software licensing and user management capabilities.

Other players, such as Rackspace, VMware and IBM SoftLayer, are considered niche players. Although both leaders by Gartner’s measure, Amazon outranked Microsoft in terms of execution and vision.

Choices aside, experts of Google seem to agree students and professionals alike need to prioritize learning to use cloud services. Lynn Langit, the first Google Developer Expert on Google Cloud Platform, runs her own consulting firm.

“[Cloud] is inevitable. Learn it as fast as you can,” she says. “They need to learn how to use the cloud while they are in school.”

Langit recalls attending data science events on college campuses only to hear they don’t have the resources to support their research. Langit is in the process of discussing an opportunity with University of California, Irvine, as an adjunct professor to teach data science.

Universities, as well as online education programs like Udacity or technology bootcamps, have established themselves as popular breeding grounds for young entrepreneurs and their upstart ventures. Vikram Tiwari, Google Expert and developer at Omni Labs, Inc., acknowledges the trend in students founding startup companies out of college.

“Hackathons are becoming diverse and engaging, and academia is pushing more towards unconventional methods of providing education,” he says.

“With this grant Google will be reaching to earliest adopters and tinkerers. It's a win-win on both sides, for Google gets a lot of highly qualified individuals and individuals get all the horsepower they have hoped for to do ambitious projects.”

The cloud has been growing fast, especially in areas of machine learning and the access to a lot of data, Tiwari says.

While the education initiative isn’t yet available in other countries, Brazil-based Google Expert Daniel Viveiros echoes what faculty and industry professionals are saying — embrace the cloud.

In the last few years Viveiros has been mentoring startup programs, where he met students using machine learning to help people buy clothes by making size and style recommendations and data analytics to optimize energy consumption with energy-saving sensors.

“It’s amazing how bold they are in terms of ideas and willingness to take risks,” Viveiros says.

“I think it's an amazing opportunity to let undergraduate students get in touch with bleeding edge technologies sooner.”

Viveiros remembers working with cloud computing platforms around 2011 and stresses how powerful it is to have available this set of products as a 20-year-old.

“Once you move the responsibility to learn and master cloud platforms to the very beginning of your professional [career], you let the students focus on what is next,” he says.

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