Compute power in the cloud


The purpose of this page is to describe in some depth the available processing power on the public cloud.

There is an ‘effectively unlimited’ pool of computers available on the public cloud, a reservoir you can tap to address your computing tasks.

AWS Instance Types [Azure Virtual Machine types] (


  • Cloud accounts initially limit the number of virtual machines you can allocate to prevent you from accidentally running up a huge bill. Only ask for this limit to be raised when you are certain you know what you are doing.

Basic Thesis

We develop here a framework for describing and tackling large computing tasks on the cloud. This includes drawing a distinction between available instance types or cloud VMs (Virtual Machines). (See the cloudmaven overview page and the glossary for the basic terminology.) In general the more powerful the cloud VM the more it costs per hour. At the same time it will complete a given task more quickly; so there is the potential to benchmark different instance types to find an optimal solution. To first order you can probably skip this, however, in favor of simply understanding how to match your instance choice to your compute task.

Incidentally: On the AWS cloud you may cut your costs using the Spot market; this detail is not discussed further on this page.

Your cloud account may have a native limit to how many VMs you can engage at one time. If this is insufficient for your work you can contact the cloud vendor and request a limit increase. This should be granted fairly quickly but be warned: The reason that limit is in place to begin with is to prevent you from accidentally allocating a large number of cloud VMs and thereby running up a large bill. If your objective is to run a large number of VMs at once you should proceed in powers of ten (3 to 30 to 300 to 3000) to make sure that your ensemble is behaving as you expect.

There are two extremes of large compute task, roughly speaking; which we call HPC and HTC. HPC stands for High Performance Computing and in a narrow definition it refers to tasks spread across many VMs which require inter-VM communication. The classic example is a solution to a computational fluid dynamics problem in which a volume is subdivided among VMs or ‘nodes’. In this case a particular cell may evolve over one time step and must share its new boundary conditions with another node concerned with an adjacent cell. This requires all of the nodes to proceed in lockstep as the system evolves in time, where each tick of the clock requires a period of inter-node communication. This is typically done using special purpose hardware such as Infiniband. (kilroy citation needed)

On the cloud this kind of inter-node communication speed is an emerging technology. The state of the art is rapidly changing and (kilroy need more here) you will want to look at the cloud vendor websites to see what is currently available.

The other extreme for large compute tasks are those in which inter-node communication is not a bottleneck. This is referred to as High Throughput Computing or HTC. It is also sometimes called embarrassingly parallel computing, and by other euphemistic names. The positive feature of this type of computing is that multiple tasks can be started on multiple nodes. These can run to completion and report back their end results. These results are ultimately collated into some synthesis process to arrive at an end result. As an example see our AWS case study on Rosetta.

This spectrum of HPC to HTC gives an important element of our large compute task framework. In the HTC case we can manage large numbers of parallel jobs using a Scheduler such as Sun Grid Engine. In principle any compute task can be completed in roughly the same amount of time by simply allocating more nodes. In the HPC case we have a more complex situation and therefore more work to do to ensure thata inter-node communication is not creating a bottleneck.

Threads, vCPUs, hyperthreading, blades and all that jazz

Machine characteristics

Distinction between metal and various VM configurations

AWS view: General purpose, compute-intensive, memory-intensive, burst, others

Azure view of things


Top of the line VMs

Attached drive strategies



Buckets and blobs

HPC and interconnection speed