A new European cloud computing platform has been launched, with the support of 18 companies and research organisations, to support scientific research and accelerate the search for the elusive “God particle” known as Higgs boson.

The initiative is called “Helix Nebula – the Science Cloud”, after the large planetary nebula sometimes referred to as the Eye of God. As well as being used in the search for Higgs Boson, it will also support genomic analysis in biomedical research and research of natural disasters.

First outlined by European Commission vice-president Neelie Kroes in January 2012, Helix Nebula – the Science Cloud is made up of a pan-European consortium across academia and industry. It is supported by some of the biggest names in the ICT industry, including Atos, Capgemini, Interoute, SAP and Telefonica.

By demonstrating how cloud computing can help solve some of society's biggest challenges, the consortium hopes to ignite the European market for cloud computing services, and open the way for public organisations to profit from commercial cloud services.

“It is a true win-win,” said Kroes back in January. “The cloud market will grow, bringing opportunities for existing suppliers and new entrants, and cloud buyers, including the public sector, will buy more with less and become more efficient.”

Three flagship use cases are being developed to demonstrate the impact that Helix Nebula will have on scientific projects with massive data and compute needs, allowing for experimentation and testing while scaling up the cloud infrastructure. These projects will be deployed during a two-year pilot phase.

The first is CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics, which will have access to more computing power to process data from the ATLAS experiment at its Large Hadron Collider accelerator. ATLAS is designed to observe phenomena that involve massive particles that might shed light on new theories of particle physics.

“CERN’s computing capacity needs to keep up with the data coming from the Large Hadron Collider and we see Helix Nebula – the Science Cloud as a great way of working with industry to meet this challenge,” said Frédéric Hemmer, head of CERN’s IT department.

The second use case is the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), which is setting up a new service to simplify the analysis of large genomes, such as those from mammals, allowing a deeper insight into evolution and biodiversity across a range of organisms.

“The quantities of genomic sequence data are vast and the needs for high performance computing (HPC) infrastructures and bioinformatics expertise to analyse these data pose a challenge for many laboratories,” said Rupert Lueck, head of IT services at EMBL. He added that Helix Nebula will allow scientists to overcome these hurdles and provision the right infrastructure on demand.

Finally, the European Space Agency (ESA), in partnership with the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales in France and the German Aerospace Center, is collaborating with the National Research Council in Italy to create an Earth observation platform focusing on earthquake and volcano research.

Dr. Maryline Lengert, senior advisor at ESA, told Techworld that the final state of Helix Nebula is not yet fully defined.

“What is being done today is that the IT companies are providing us an infrastructure that is not vendor specific, i.e. we can switch from one vendor to the other without any changes to our products/data. This is what we are testing during the pilot: total portability,” Lengert explained.

“Interoperability should be the next step. Therefore the sum of all these IT companies infrastructure will eventually reach the critical mass necessary to serve Science in Europe. It is planned that, after the pilot phase, Helix Nebula extends to serving more than just Science (Government, commercial services...).”

Other scientific organisations and service providers will be invited to join Helix Nebula – the Science Cloud in the near future. The Proof of Concept will be finalised mid-2012. The strategic plans for a scientific cloud computing infrastructure for Europe, published in August 2011, can be found here.