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NASA wants to run space missions, not data centers

CTO says the primary effort of NASA's open source cloud effort is to free itself from IT tasks

October 21, 2010 04:45 PM ET

Computerworld - ORLANDO -- The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is backing open source cloud computing with a long-term goal in mind: to get out of the data center business.

NASA CTO Chris Kemp said he believes that compute resources are fundamentally a utility, no different than electric power. And "we don't own power plants right now - we don't own other services that are provided as utilities," he said

"I don't see why NASA needs to operate any infrastructure," said Kemp. "We can build space probes, we can build deep space networks, we can stay out on the frontiers, where the American public wants us to be and not spend over $1 billion a year on it infrastructure."

Kemp talked about NASA's cloud computing efforts during a talk and an interview at Gartner Inc.'s ITExpo symposium here this week.

It was author Nicholas Carr who popularized the notion that compute resources would become a commodity that in time would be accessed as utilities now are.

But so far, the computer industry is still far from operating like a utility. Many cloud platforms are still proprietary and unplugging from one provider's cloud-based apps to another's is difficult.

That's where Kemp and NASA have stepped in with a potential solution.

NASA developed its own cloud computing platform, called Nebula, and has released it as open source under an Apache 2.0 license. Cloud computing and hosting provider Rackspace, which had developed its own internal cloud management platform, contacted NASA about using some of Nebula's code. That effort led to OpenStack, which emerged from Rackspace, NASA and others this summer as an open source cloud platform.

"Our mandate is to commercialize technology," said Kemp, noting that code from NASA's Nebula cloud software management stack is now part of the OpenStack technology. "That could be one of the most important pieces of technology that NASA has commercialized in a long time," he said.

The benefits of open source to NASA's cloud efforts are clear, said Kemp. It expands the number of developers working on OpenStack code and NASA can help influence its development and standards.

"This furthers our objective of having off-the-shelf products that meet our requirements -- less custom development [and] less proprietary systems," he added.

NASA's long-range plan is to increase reliance on cloud-based services, transitioning from internal systems over a 10- to 20-year period. Kemp believes it is possible that the agency may eventually get much, if not all, of its compute resources delivered via external cloud resources.

At this point Kemp said the agency doesn't officially use public cloud services -- though some researchers may be using public clouds on their own -- but they are being investigated.



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