Researchers selected by the US National Science Foundation will have free access to Microsoft's Windows Azure cloud computing platform.

Research projects focused on cloud computing will have access to Windows Azure for three years as part of the deal. The agreement will allow the US scientific community "the opportunity to leverage highly scalable cloud computing services, especially for data-intensive applications," said Jeannette Wing, NSF's assistant director for computer and information science and engineering.

The focus will be on finding new ways to use the cloud in research, Wing said. "The cloud as a commodity service is familiar to all of us, providing our email, online shopping, posting pictures for our friends to see, and of course, the killer app, search," she said. "However, the cloud as a research platform is still underexplored territory."

Cloud computing can be particularly useful for analysing "massive amounts of data," she added.

Microsoft wants researchers to be able to do their work without worrying about infrastructure costs, said Dan Reed, corporate vice president for technology strategy and policy and extreme computing at Microsoft. An explosion of data is leading to a need for new approaches to computing-based research, but it doesn't make sense for each university to host its own cloud computing environment, he said.

"We need to shift the dialogue from a focus on infrastructure to a focus on insight, and that means reducing the burden of infrastructure management that exists for many academic researchers," he added.

In addition to the access to Azure, researchers will get help from Microsoft developers, who will work with grant recipients to equip them with a set of tools, applications and data collections that can be shared with the broad academic community, and also provide their expertise in research, science and cloud computing, Microsoft said.

Researchers may immediately submit supplemental proposals to any existing NSF award, the NSF said. Under two programs, researchers will have until 15 April to apply for a cloud computing grant for the current fiscal year.

New cloud computing programmes at NSF are anticipated.