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Coronavirus: Round-up of free cloud infrastructure services to support enterprises through Covid-19

Amazon, Google, Alibaba and OVHcloud are among public cloud providers offering enterprises, researchers and healthcare free access to services to support them through the coronavirus pandemic

The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has prompted enterprises across the world to rethink how they operate so that they can continue to serve their customers, while adhering to government mandates to work from home wherever possible, in the interests of social distancing.

These are unprecedented times, and the cloud and datacentre community have responded by introducing tweaks to their product offerings or terms of service, resulting in some firms making their services available for free or at a reduce rates.

In some cases, these measures are being introduced to support enterprises through any financial hardship they might be facing because of the pandemic. In others, these services are being offered for free to lower the barriers to entry that might prevent healthcare workers and research teams from getting on the front foot in their fight against Covid-19.

This is a list that Computer Weekly will be adding to and updating as the pandemic plays out, but, for now, here is how the cloud and datacentre provider community is lending its support to the global effort to curtail and contain the spread of coronavirus.  

Google Cloud rolls out freebies to G Suite users and research teams

Google Cloud was among the first of the tech giants to roll out changes to its cloud product lines in response to the coronavirus pandemic. At the start of March 2020, it began making the premium features of its flagship video conference service, Google Meet, available to all users of its cloud-based productivity offering, G Suite, at no extra cost until 30 September 2020.

The firm has since followed this up with an initiative that has seen it make public datasets from a range of research and healthcare organisations free to access to support researchers, analysts and data scientists in their efforts to accelerate Covid-19-related medical breakthroughs.

AWS offers access to Covid-19 data lake

In a similar vein, Amazon Web Services (AWS) has embarked on an effort to create a publicly available data lake containing up-to-date information on characteristics of coronavirus and the factors that influence its spread, which will be made freely available to stakeholders.

“Hosted on the AWS cloud, we have seeded our curated data lake with Covid-19 case tracking data from Johns Hopkins and the New York Times, hospital bed availability from Definitive Healthcare, and over 45,000 research articles about Covid-19 and related coronaviruses from the Allen Institute for AI,” said the company.

“The breakthroughs that can win the battle against this disease arrive faster when it’s easy for everyone to access and experiment with this vital information.

“The AWS Covid-19 data lake allows experimenters to quickly run analyses on the data in place without wasting time extracting and wrangling data from all the available data sources.”

OVHcloud offers free IaaS to firms supporting others through Covid-19

French cloud infrastructure provider OVHcloud is offering access to its infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) platform for free to any companies that are “working in solidarity with one another” during the pandemic to provide remote working, collaboration and healthcare hosting services.

“Given the gravity of the situation and the self-isolation required in many countries, we can expect these solutions to be in very high demand,” the company said in a blog post. “Concepts like helping one another and working together as a community are fundamental values of OVHcloud.

“As a result, OVHcloud has decided to do everything it can to offer free infrastructures without any commitment period for the duration of the Covid-19 crisis. The aim of this is to help and support traffic spikes for websites that fall within these business sectors. Websites and infrastructures receiving free service will also benefit from the same level of maintenance and support.”

The move is part of the firm’s “Open Solidarity” initiative, which it says is part and parcel of its commitment to making “reliable” technologies that will support businesses through the coronavirus outbreak more widely available. Its hope is that if companies can host their offerings for free in the OVHcloud, that will enable them to lower the cost of using them for end-users, too.

“OVHcloud is delivering web-cloud, bare metal, private cloud and public cloud solutions free of charge for the entire duration of the crisis – and this is for software publishers, startups and public service providers,” said OVHCloud CEO Michel Paulin in a blog post.

“This way, they can also offer free remote working, communication, healthcare and other solutions to SMEs and individuals.”

Alibaba offers AI-infused cloud services to the healthcare community

As previously reported by Computer Weekly, Chinese cloud giant Alibaba began offering medical teams across the world free access to its artificial intelligence (AI)-infused cloud-based applications in mid-March 2020, to aid their work in the fight against Covid-19.

The services on offer are designed to support research into the diagnosis, treatment, testing and genome sequencing of the disease itself, and to assist with mapping how the pandemic may progress in other regions as time goes on.

The creation of these services has been brought about by a collaboration between Alibaba Cloud’s tech teams, the scientific research community and techies from a distance learning platform, known as Ding Talk, which is hosted within the company’s cloud platform.

Ding Talk is used by more than 120 million students across China to live-stream classes, but during the outbreak, it is also acting as free communications platform for medical professionals across the world to keep in contact with healthcare workers on the frontline of China’s battle against Covid-19.

“Through videoconferencing and real-time AI translating into 11 languages, Alibaba Cloud aims to build a virtual community, inviting Chinese doctors to share their experiences and answer questions from global peers,” said the company.

IBM opens up access to cloud-based, AI tech to support Covid-19 fight 

The research arm of tech giant IBM has made a number of cloud-based, AI resources, as well as datasets, freely available to healthcare agencies and governments across the globe since early April 2020.

“Though some of the resources are still in exploratory stages, IBM is making them available to qualifying researchers at no charge to aid the international investigation of Covid-19,” IBM’s director of research, Dario Gil announced in a blog post.

These resources include an AI that has been fed details of thousands of research papers contained within the White House-backed Covid-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19) so that researchers can quickly access answers to specific queries, drawn from the masses of structured and unstructured data that exists about the disease already.

Other cloud-based, AI offerings from IBM are geared towards streamlining the drug discovery process for finding treatments for Covid-19, while the company has also confirmed that access to the IBM Functional Genomics Platform will remain free for the duration of the pandemic too.

“This cloud-based repository and research tool includes genes, proteins and other molecular targets from sequenced viral and bacterial organisms in one place with connections pre-computed to help accelerate discovery of molecular targets required for drug design, test development and treatment,” Gil added.

UKCloud cuts prices to reduce procurement hurdles for public sector firms

Closer to home, UK-based, public sector-focused cloud provider UKCloud has seen a surge in demand for new compute capacity to support workloads that will enable its clients to weather the coronavirus outbreak.

However, as acknowledged in a recent email to customers, UKCloud CEO Simon Hansford said much of the demand it has seen from public sector organisations in recent weeks has required compute resources to be deployed rapidly, far quicker than traditional public sector procurement cycles allow.

“We have had many requests to support the rapid deployment of new applications or infrastructure that might be required to enable [clients’] plans and programmes around Covid-19,” said the email.

“The fast-moving nature of this situation means it is inevitable that most requirements have been vague, and hence our customers have valued the additional insight, support and contribution in resources and expertise from the UKCloud team. Despite this, almost every engagement has been constrained by getting momentum with procurement and budgeting.”

In response to this, UKCloud has tweaked its terms of use so that any of the firm’s public sector clients that need additional cloud-based resources to run services or applications in response to the coronavirus can acquire them free of charge.  

“Due to the potential scale and consequences to our nation of this pandemic, I feel it appropriate that UKCloud should help and engage with our customers and deploy solutions related to Covid-19 without any contractual or financial cover,” said the email. “This is a second order issue and I am happy that we provide our full services and service level agreements at our risk, or if agreed upfront, free of charge.

“My aim is to ensure that anything that you need to do to help keep our nation safe and deliver continuity of public services is readily available.”

In a follow-up statement to Computer Weekly, Hansford said the firm had seen a marked rise in demand for services that will support staff who need to work remotely, but also – particularly where NHS organisations are concerned – access to data analytics tools as well.

“There has also been a sharp increase in requests to help NHS staff across various locations, and there have been cases where some need extended services in order to work remotely, for example,” said Hansford.

“We’ve also received several requests asking for support with data analytics and patient data/trend data analysis, as well as an increase in remote clinical consultations, which are vital during this period of lockdown, reducing the need for patients to make their way to a GP.”

Outside of the NHS, the company has also seen requests from across the public sector for additional cloud capacity for resiliency purposes, as organisations take steps to ensure their infrastructure has the capacity needed to support remote working on a large scale.  

“Really, it’s remote working that’s the biggest of all the themes,” said Hansford. “So much of what we’re doing is to enable organisations to operate effectively in the current mass remote working landscape. The goal for all organisations is to try and assume connectivity and continuity, and we’re very pleased to be playing a part in providing that.”

Free cloud comms tools and relaxed payment terms

G-Cloud-listed cloud-based collaboration firm Inovem has also rolled out a similar offer, making 100 seats of its online workspace product, Kahootz, freely available to charities, public sector organisations and enterprises for three months.

From the perspective of supporting enterprises through the difficult economic impacts that coronavirus is causing, telco and hosting provider CenturyLink has introduced a number measures to support its clients through any Covid-19-related financial difficulties.

To this point, the company has in recent weeks suspended data usage limits for customers, has agreed to waive late payment fees and has assured its customer base that it will not terminate the contract of any SME that is unable to pay for the next couple of months.

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