Bioconductor in the cloud

Obtain an Amazon Web Services account and start the AMI. Additional instructions below.



We have developed an Amazon Machine Image (AMI) that is optimized for running Bioconductor in the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (or EC2) for sequencing tasks.

Here are a few reasons you could use it:

See below for more specific scenarios.

Preloaded AMI

The AMI comes pre-loaded with the latest release version of R, and the following Bioconductor packages (and all their CRAN dependencies):

Plus the following categories of annotation package:

How To Use It

First-time steps

First you will need an Amazon Web Services (AWS) account if you do not already have one. Sign up for AWS and then click here to sign up for the EC2 service. This will require that you provide credit card information; however, you will only be charged for services used. Some AWS services are free.

That's all that is required if you want to use RStudio Server to connect to your AMI with a web browser. If you also want to connect to it with SSH, create a keypair as follows:

Launch the AWS Console. Click on the Key Pairs link in the lower left-hand corner of the page. Click the "Create Key Pair" button. When prompted, supply a name. We suggest that the name be a combination of "bioconductor", your first name, and your machine name (this will avoid conflicts with other people who share your AWS account, or possibly your own account on another machine). For example, if your name is Bob and your personal computer is named "mylaptop", your key pair name could be "bioconductor-bob-mylaptop". Download the resulting .pem file and keep it in a safe place.

Launching the AMI

Once you have created an AWS account, you can launch the AMI simply by clicking on this link:

Start AMI

Alternative links:

You'll see the following screen:

Click "continue".

On this screen, you can choose which version of Bioconductor you want to run. If you are not sure, use the version that is already filled in. You can also choose an EC2 instance type. The default, t1.micro, is free to use under AWS's free usage tier if you use it for less than 750 hours a month. After choosing Bioconductor version and instance type, click Continue.

Click Continue here to launch the AMI. If you like, you can click Cost to see how much it will cost to run the AMI with the selected instance type (if you have selected the t1.micro instance type, be sure and click the "FREE USAGE TIER" box in the page that comes up).

You'll see the following screen:

Click Close.

In a few moments, the AMI will be ready (when Status changes to CREATE_COMPLETE). You may need to click the Refresh button in the upper right-hand corner of the screen (not your browser's refresh button). You can then click on the Outputs tab to get the URL and login information for your instance:

Click on the link shown in the Stack Outputs table under URL. You can then log in to RStudio server using the username and password shown.

Important Note: When you are finished using the AMI, be sure and shut it down to avoid incurring extra charges. Shut it down by going to the CloudFormation Console and checking the box next to StartBioconductorAMI. Then click "Delete Stack" and confirm by clicking "Yes, Delete":

Connecting to your AMI using SSH

Use the following URL to start your AMI:

Start AMI with SSH

Follow the same steps as above, but give AWS the name of a key-pair that you created in the first-time steps. (A list of your keypairs is available here).

The Outputs tab will display the ssh command you should use to connect to your instance.

You can vary this command. If you want to use programs or R packages that use X11, be sure and add a -X flag, to make the command something like this:

ssh -X -i bioconductor-bob-mylaptop.pem

If you do not want to log in as root, you can change "root" to "ubuntu".

Now you can paste your command line into a terminal or Command Prompt. Make sure you are in the same directory as your key pair file.

Windows Users: You will need to install a version of the ssh and scp commands. Graphical programs like PuTTY and WinSCP will work. Our examples, however, will use the command-line versions of these programs, which you can obtain by installing Cygwin (be sure and install the openssh package).

Once you have pasted this command into your Terminal or Command Prompt window (and pressed Enter) you should be connected to your Amazon EC2 instance.

Starting Up Multiple Instances

Use the following URL to start your AMI:

Start Multiple Instances

To start multiple instances with ssh, use this link:

Start Multiple Instances with SSH

The procedure is similar to the one described above, except you enter the number of instances you want to start. Also, you will not find the instance hostnames in the Outputs panel of the CloudFormation console. You can find this information in the EC2 Console.


Our AMIs have the following IDs.

Bioconductor Version R Version AMI ID
2.14 (release, recommended) 3.1.0 ami-594b5530
2.13 3.0.2 ami-71184a18
2.12 3.0 ami-b93972d0
2.11 2.15 ami-910c83f8
2.10 2.15 ami-9f5fd0f6
2.9 2.14 ami-755ed11c
2.8 2.13 ami-4b2fee22

Please note that AMI IDs may change over time as we update the underlying AMI. Refer to this page for the most current AMI IDs. These AMIs live in the US-East-1 region.

Scenarios for using your Bioconductor instance

Using Rgraphviz

Make sure you have connected to your instance either with a web browser, or using the -X flag of the ssh command. Something like:

ssh -X -i bioconductor-bob-mylaptop.pem

Then, from within R on the remote instance:

V <- letters[1:10]
M <- 1:4
g1 <- randomGraph(V, M, 0.2)

This should start a graphics device on your local computer displaying a simple graph.

Paralellization using multicore

This works best if you have selected a high-CPU instance type to run.

This trivial example runs the rnorm() function, but any function would work. Consult the multicore documentation for more information.

mclapply(1:30, rnorm)

Using an MPI cluster in the cloud

You can launch multiple EC2 instances and set them up as an MPI cluster, to parallelize and shorten long-running CPU-intensive jobs. You must explicitly parallelize your CPU-intensive code using functions in the Rmpi package.

The simplest way to start up a cluster is to just click on this URL:

Start MPI Cluster

That will start an MPI cluster which you can access via you web browser using RStudio Server.

If you also want to be able to access your cluster via ssh, use this URL instead (you'll need to provide the name of an ssh keypair that you have previously set up):

Start MPI Cluster with ssh access

The startup procedure is similar to the launch procedure discussed earlier, except that you are also asked how many worker instances you want to start. The EC2 instance types page tells you how many cores are available with each instance type. So if you wanted to start a cluster with 40 workers, you could choose a NumClusterWorkers of 10 and a ClusterInstanceType of m1.xlarge. Ten machines with four cores each gives you a cluster with 40 workers. An additional master node will also be started up.

Once you have logged into the RStudio Server using the link provided by the above step, you'll be able to access your cluster as follows:


You can then run some code on each worker, for example:

mpi.parLapply(1:mpi.universe.size(), function(x) x+1)

This performs a simple calculation on each worker and returns the results as a list. For more complex examples, read on or consult the Rmpi documentation.

Be sure and delete your stack when you are finished using it, in order to stop accruing charges.

The above procedure can handle many parallel processing tasks.

If you want your cluster nodes to have a shared disk, follow the steps below. (This procedure will soon be replaced by a simpler one-click procedure like those above.)

This section assumes you have started up your AMI and connected to it with ssh.

Here we present a tutorial for using the Bioconductor package ShortRead with an EC2-based MPI cluster.

To configure an EC2-based MPI cluster, launch single EC2 instance as described above, if you haven't already. This will be the master node of your cluster. Consider which instance type you want your cluster to consist of. Note that the master and worker nodes will be of the same instance type.

In most cases, you'll want all of your cluster nodes to have access to the same data files. We accomplish this by creating an EBS Volume holding our data. This volume is attached to the master node and then shared by the workers using NFS.

We've provided a script that will create an EBS volume already populated with sample data. To use it, run the following command from your AMI instance:

create_sample_volume --access-key-id XXX --secret-key yyy

Where "xxx" is your Amazon Access Key ID and "yyy" is your Secret Key. The script will produce output like the following:

Waiting for volume to be available...
Volume is available.
Created volume vol-dec646b6 in availability zone us-east-1c.

Make a note of the volume ID and the availability zone (you can also find this information in the Volumes page of the EC2 console). This step is not necessary if cluster nodes do not need to share a disk.

Now you're ready to spin up an MPI cluster. Use the mpiutil script. Invoked without arguments, mpiutil produces the following:

Manage MPI clusters
--access-key-id     -a  Amazon Access Key ID
--secret-key        -s  Amazon Secret Key ID
--num-workers       -w  Number of workers to start
--cluster-name      -n  Name of cluster
--halt-cluster      -h  Halt cluster
--instance-type     -t  Instance type
--volume-id         -v  Volume ID

  To start a cluster:
    mpiutil -a XXX -s YYY -w 2 -n "my cluster" -t t1.micro -v vol-9999999

  To stop a cluster:
    mpiutil -a XXX -s YYY -n "my cluster" -h -v vol-9999999

Let's start a cluster with three workers. Use a command line this:

mpiutil -a XXX -s YYY -w 3 -n workers -t t1.micro -v vol-9999999

Make the following substitutions:

This command will mount your EBS volume, launch three worker instances, share the EBS volume with them using NFS, and do some other housekeeping tasks.

You can verify that your cluster is working with the following command. You may need to wait a few moments before all the workers are up and running, but then this command will work:

mpirun -np 1 --hostfile /usr/local/Rmpi/hostfile R --no-save -f /usr/local/Rmpi/mpiTest.R --args 3

This will run an R script which should produce some output like this:

> library(Rmpi)
> mpi.spawn.Rslaves(nsl = nsl)
    3 slaves are spawned successfully. 0 failed.
master (rank 0, comm 1) of size 4 is running on: ip-10-117-50-18 
slave1 (rank 1, comm 1) of size 4 is running on: ip-10-117-47-155 
slave2 (rank 2, comm 1) of size 4 is running on: ip-10-117-45-245 
slave3 (rank 3, comm 1) of size 4 is running on: ip-10-117-74-57 
> mpi.close.Rslaves()
> mpi.quit()

This output shows that there is a master and three worker nodes running, each with distinct IP addresses. You may see the same IP address repeated multiple times, once for every processor core available on a machine.

Now, to do some actual work with your MPI cluster, run the following command:

mpirun -np 1 --hostfile /usr/local/Rmpi/hostfile R --no-save -f /usr/local/Rmpi/ShortReadQA.R --args 3

This will run the qa() function from the ShortRead package on three files in parallel, giving each node one input file to process. Then the script will create a file called "report.tar.gz" in your current directory, containing a QA report on these files. You can download this file using scp (see Moving data to and from your Bioconductor AMI instance) and unarchive it with the following command on your local computer:

tar zxf report.tar.gz

This will create a "report" directory. Inside it is an "index.html" file that you can open with a web browser.

You can also run R interactively with the MPI cluster connected, by using this command:

mpirun -np 1 --hostfile /usr/local/Rmpi/hostfile R --no-save

When you are finished with your MPI cluster, you can shut down the worker instances and do other housekeeping tasks with the following command, issued on your master node:

mpiutil -a XXX -s YYY -n workers -h -v vol-9999999

Make the following substitutions:

Note: As always when working with EC2, be sure to shut down all running instances when you are done with them, to avoid unnecessary charges. You can quickly check instance status on the Instances Page of the AWS Console.

Using a parallel cluster in the cloud

You can create easily create a socket cluster of multiple machines using R's parallel package.

Start parallel Cluster

You can also start a parallel cluster with SSH access enabled:

Start parallel Cluster with ssh access

These links prompt you for instance type and number of workers. For information about instance types, refer to Amazon's Instance Type Page. "Virtual cores" is the number that tells us how many cores are available for parallel computation on each instance.

Choosing 2 for "number of workers" results in a cluster of 3 machines: 2 workers plus one master. If the instance type chosen is m1.xlarge, then you will be starting up a cluster of 12 cores (3 machines times 4 cores each).

After starting the above stack, you'll see a URL in the Outputs tab where you can log into R on the master node.

A file /usr/local/Rmpi/hostfile.plain describes the machines in this cluster and how many cores are on each. It might look like this: 4 4 4

So you can do a parallel operation as follows:

lines <- readLines("/usr/local/Rmpi/hostfile.plain")
hosts <- character()
for (line in lines)
    x <- (strsplit(line[[1]], " "))
    hosts <-
        c(hosts,[[1]][1], as.integer(x[[1]][2])))
cl <- makePSOCKcluster(hosts,
    master=system("hostname -i", intern=TRUE))
system.time(clusterCall(cl, Sys.sleep, 1))

We know this was done in parallel because it took just over one second:

user  system elapsed 
0.004   0.000   1.005 

Creating a custom version of the Bioconductor AMI

Note: If you make changes to the running Bioconductor AMI, and then terminate the AMI, your changes will be lost. Use the steps described here to ensure that your changes are persistent.

If the AMI is missing some packages or features you think it should have, please let us know.

If you want to customize the AMI for your own purposes, it is simple. Just go ahead and customize your running instance as you see fit. Typically this will involve installing R packages with biocLite(), and software packages (at the operating system level) with the Ubuntu package manager apt-get.

When your instance is customized to your liking, issue the following commands (as root):


This will remove unneeded files from your AMI, clear your shell history, and log you out of your instance. You may also want to change the password of the "ubuntu" user (because the default password is publicly known, in order to run RStudio Server) with the command:

passwd ubuntu

Now use the AWS Console to Stop your instance (important note: do NOT "Terminate" your instance; use the Stop command (under Instance Actions) instead.)

Then choose "Create Image (EBS AMI)" under the Instance Actions menu. You will be prompted for a name for your AMI. After entering the name, your AMI will be created and given a unique AMI ID. You can then launch instances of this AMI using the steps above, being sure to substitute the ID of your own AMI. Your AMI will be private, accessible only to your AWS account, unless you decide to make it more widely accessible.

Now you should Terminate the Stopped instance of the Bioconductor AMI.

Moving data to and from your Bioconductor AMI instance

If you are using RStudio Server, you can upload and download files from the Files pane in RStudio server.

If you are connected via ssh, the scp command is the most efficient way to move data to and from your EC2 instances.

To copy a file from your computer to a running Bioconductor AMI instance:

Hidden scp -i bioconductor-bob-mylaptop.pem /path/to/myfile

That will copy the file at "/path/to/myfile" on your local computer to the /root directory on the remote instance. To copy a file from a running instance to your local computer, do something like this (still at your local computer):

scp -i bioconductor-bob-mylaptop.pem /some/directory

That will copy the file /root/myfile from the running instance to /some/directory on your local machine.

Reminder: Files created on a running EC2 instance are not persisted unless you do some special steps. So if you are generating output files with Bioconductor, you must copy them to your local machine before terminating your instance, or your files will be lost. If you have a lot of data to move back and forth, you may want to look into Elastic Block Storage.


If you have questions about the Bioconductor AMI, please contact us through the Bioconductor mailing list.

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