NASA launches massive cloud migration

Columbia launch, 2002
Credit: NASA

Using Amazon’s cloud services, NASA is moving legacy apps, saving money, gaining efficiency

NASA migrated 65 software applications, including its flagship NASA.gov website, to the cloud in 22 weeks, and the space agency is still in the midst of a massive deployment to the cloud.

That initial migration was completed at what analysts called a breakneck pace, and now the fun has just begun, said the head of NASA's Web services.

"The important thing this is we've learned a lot in the last 18 months," said Roopangi Kadakia, NASA's Web services executive. "Going through that, we were able to see how you optimize legacy applications. It can't be business as usual. There's a whole set of different ways to think about the cloud. If we get folks to that point, we can really start creating a strategy so you have better access to information anytime and anywhere."

roopangi kadakia nasa NASA

Roopangi Kadakia, NASA's Web services executive, has been working to migrate the space agency's websites and applications to the cloud.

Kadakia and her team began working on the massive migration in March 2013. First, they moved those 65 applications to the cloud, including NASA's engineering network and the agency website devoted to science and research.

It was a huge undertaking, according to Raj Ananthanpillai, chairman, CEO and president of InfoZen, the cloud integrator that helped NASA with its cloud project.

"All of our guys needed a big vacation after they were done," said Ananthanpillai. "It was very interesting. We were changing the tires in a moving car. You cannot put NASA and all its infrastructure on hold. You can't say 'None of this will be available for a while.'"

Nearly a year and a half later, NASA has moved about 110 applications and websites to the cloud, specifically to different regions of the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud platform. The space agency project is one of the largest government agency deployments to Amazon's cloud.

NASA is far from done, however. The agency has 1,500 public-facing websites and 2,000 intranets, extranets and applications. The accomplishments of Kadakia and her team are just a beginning.

The space agency will continue to move apps to the cloud and build apps in the cloud. Its goal is to move or build another 20 to 30 apps by the end of the year.

"I want to give people the ability to collaborate," Kadakia said. "I want to give them a repository on the cloud where we can be doing code sharing and code reuse within NASA. And we're looking at disaster recovery as a service."

NASA didn't just inch its way into Amazon's cloud offering.

The agency has about 60 apps, such as its public-facing websites, on Amazon's public cloud, and 40 more, including NASA's workflow and privacy-impact applications, on Amazon's virtual private cloud, which offers a certain amount of isolation in the public cloud.

The agency also has 10 "sensitive" applications -- such as its engineering network, which has 3.5 million to 5 million documents for engineers across NASA -- on Amazon's GovCloud, an isolated section of the AWS cloud for government agencies with specific regulatory and compliance requirements.

"I didn't go out saying I want to use Amazon cloud," Kadakia said. "I had these apps that needed a much better return on investment. I was able to show, right from the beginning, about a 40% [year-over-year] cost savings on operations and maintenance -- not doing any consolidations or cleanup. It was 40% right off the bat."

So NASA, the agency in charge of building heavy-lift rockets and sending astronauts to live and work on the International Space Station, isn't building a private cloud as part of this project?

No, it is not.

Kadakia said private clouds have been set up within some of the agency's centers, but there isn't an overall NASA initiative to create one. It's all about looking at the situation in light of the agency's risk policies.

"What are you trying to protect? How does hosting it internally give you more protection than having it hosted externally?" asked Kadakia. "Just because a server is in your own data center does not make it secure. It's not about where the information is but how it's protected. It's about the controls used. The government has to abide by regulations and there are hundreds of controls. Who has access? Do they have continuous guards? Do they have lockable casings in their data centers? Do they have redundant cabling? What Amazon does with their data center is going to be evaluated."

Since Amazon doesn't have a classified offering, NASA hasn't moved any of its classified information to the cloud, Kadakia said. The agency also has not migrated any of the applications that support the space station.

Migration challenges

What made much of the migration a challenge -- other than the speed at which NASA was moving ahead with it -- was that many of the applications were running on old, outdated systems.

"We were moving from an out-of-support content management system," Kadakia explained. "It had managed the content for Nasa.gov, our public-facing website. That was a good eight to 10 years old, and it was probably out of support for a good two to three years. The company wasn't even creating updates. There was no way to keep up to date with that system."

Because the content management system, which Kadakia declined to name, was so old, updating NASA's popular websites was a cumbersome process.

"The cost to make sure content delivery was done as effectively as possible was large," said Kadakia. "When the Mars Science Lab landed, we had to make sure we were giving Web updates on almost a minute-by-minute basis. That was very tricky with that Web content management system. We could Band-Aid quicker publishing times but they really were Band-Aids. It was nearly manual."

Now that they're on the cloud, updating the websites has gone from taking about 20 minutes to two minutes.

"This was pretty amazing," Kadakia said. "It's not like just moving over an application. In our legacy environment, we may have had tech components so out of support that they weren't compatible with anything. They had to be updated and sometimes re-engineered to make them work, and work consistently, on the cloud. We also put a monitoring and security program in place. It was a whole different architecture. It was not just moving things into the cloud."

Jagdish Rebello, an analyst with IHS iSuppli, said he's not surprised that NASA is moving to the cloud, noting that the U.S. government is looking to the cloud to make its computer systems more efficient and to drive down costs.

"As they move to the cloud, I believe they'll start to figure out ways to merge the data from different websites so it's not siloed," he added. "That will make analytics easier. You're looking for relationships between data, and that's easier to find if your data is not sitting in individual silos."

Jeff Kagan, an independent industry analyst, also noted that that NASA's new ability to do more and deeper analysis could be critical to the agency.

"This would allow them to make better projections about supplies, costs and safety -- things that their past systems probably were too old to handle quickly and efficiently. This is a great idea for an agency like NASA that needs state-of-the-art computer power and speed."

Kagan also agreed with Kadakia that NASA's migration should save the space agency a lot of money over time.

"The government, in general, wastes a lot of money keeping their systems, which are not always state of the art, running," he said. "Their systems tend to be older with a lot of problems, so this would let NASA get state-of-the-art systems, do things that they can't do today and save money in the process."

Making the migration work

To ensure a successful migration, Kadakia and her team first had to clean up all of the old and outdated tech components that supported websites and applications. That had to be done before they could move to the cloud.

Once the applications were on the cloud, NASA's IT and migration teams had to make sure the applications were running efficiently there.

Kadakia explained that once the apps and websites were on the cloud, the teams started looking at the apps' performance and calculating if their tech assets were being used to their fullest potential.

"We had to look at the infrastructure the applications were sitting on," she said. "If the app had been running on a server that had this much CPU and this much storage, we had to look at how much the app was really using. We found that a lot of these apps were really over-architected."

The team found that some cloud-based applications were only using about 1% of CPUs, even at peak levels. "They needed to be right-sized," Kadakia said. "They just didn't need to be sitting on such a powerful server. That saved us a lot of money -- about 20% to 25%.

NASA's migration team also looked at the applications and tried to figure out how to best optimize the apps themselves.

Kadakia said she pondered questions such as, "Do I re-engineer it? Do I consolidate it with something else? How do I make it more standardized?" 

"Now we're trying to take advantage of the technologies, tools and processes to automate everything from deployment to testing," she explained. "All these technologies are out there. We just have to take advantage of them."

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