PiCloud: Scientific open source computing in the cloud

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This week we interviewed Ken Elkabany, CEO of another company with a business model on top of scientific open source software: PiCloud. PiCloud allows running any Python code on an auto-scaling, high-performance cluster in a server-less cloud. That includes SciPy code. We hope this kind of interview inspires scientist and developers to turn into FLOSS entrepreneurs. Enjoy the interview and leave your comments!

F4S: Please, give us a brief introduction about your company PiCloud.

Ken: PiCloud offers the easiest way to utilize the cloud for compute-intensive applications; more specifically, applications in scientific computing, high-performance computing, and batch processing. With only a couple lines of code, scientists, developers, and engineers on our platform can leverage thousands of cores of computational power on-demand.

Computing power as a utility

Our goal is to make computing power a utility for scientists in the same way that electricity is for modern society: available to everyone, seemingly infinite in quantity, and readily accessible with a flip of a switch. We achieve this by being a serverless cloud. In other words, our users each get the power of a supercomputer at their fingertips without having to design, provision, or administer any servers.

F4S: When and why was PiCloud founded? Where is it located?

Ken: PiCloud was founded in mid-2009. We founded the company because we wanted to make computing for science light years easier in an age where science has become increasingly reliant on server farms for data analysis. PiCloud is headquartered in San Francisco, CA.

F4S: What is your business model?

Ken: We charge users for the exact amount of computation time they use on our service down to the millisecond. So if their scientific work takes 1000 3ghz cores, running for 3 hours and 15 minutes, that’s exactly what we charge them. That way, our users are never worried about efficiently managing servers to cut costs; we’ve made that our job.

F4S: How many clients do you have?

Ken: We have over two thousand users ranging from hedge funds to research groups from many of the major universities around the world.

F4S: Are you self-funded or did PiCloud got started with venture capital?

Ken: PiCloud was initially self-funded by its founders. At the end of 2010, PiCloud raised a seed round from venture capital firms Andreessen-Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins, and Greylock Partners.

F4S: How many employees does PiCloud have?

Ken: We have 9 employees, including me and Aaron Staley, our CTO.

F4S: What career opportunities are there in the company?

Ken: We’re currently hiring software engineers with expertise in areas including distributed systems, databases, and operating systems. We’re also looking for scientists who can assist us in verticalizing our platform for specific fields such as geophysics, bioinformatics, and financial risk analysis.

F4S: How will you describe PiCloud’s working environment?

Ken: We work hard–really hard–because as one of our users put it, “[We’re] accelerating the speed of science.” That goal–noble in our opinion–keeps us motivated and excited! Aside from our drive, we have very flexible hours and lots of team bonding time.

PiCloud Job panel

F4S: Do you have industry partners? Can you mention a few of them?

Ken: The most relevant partner to name for this interview is Enthought, Inc. Enthought is the largest backer of scientific computing with Python; their executives and employees are some of the major contributors to the NumPy and SciPy projects. Their Enthought Python Distribution, which includes a host of useful scientific utilities including our cloud utility, has made it significantly easier for scientists to hop on board our platform with minimal effort.

F4S: What challenges have you confronted as a business based on open source software?

Ken: Open-source software has helped us surmount numerous challenges, but as far as I can recall, has never created any. From our perspective, we’ve been building our platform on the shoulders of giants. For that, we owe our gratitude to the community.

F4S: What advice could you give to someone who is thinking about starting a business using scientific open source software?

Ken: It’s the best time ever to be doing so. A lot of technology building blocks are readily available and robust, from scientific libraries to computing platforms such as PiCloud. These building blocks make it incredibly easy to go from concept to product in a short time frame with a small team.

F4S: Which projects, blogs or sites related to open source software for science can you recommend?


F4S: Where can people contact you?


F4S: Thank you for your time Ken.

To our readers: Write your questions or thoughts in the comments.

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