Cloud platform OpenStack got its start at NASA

Large enterprises are betting big on the OpenStack cloud platform, which is deeply rooted in the space agency's ingenuity.

IBM's decision to base its cloud services on OpenStack may prove to be a key to establishing the fledgling open-source platform as the enterprise standard.

The announcement earlier this month follows similar moves by rival enterprise IT vendors Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Cisco, Red Hat and Rackspace, whose products are used by many Fortune 1000 companies.

That rapid rise of the three-year-old technology may not have happened without NASA -- a fact that's worthy of note at a time of government budget cuts and retreats on government-funded tech R&D initiatives, which in the past led to the development of the Internet, GPS, lasers and other now widely used systems.

OpenStack's beginnings can be traced to a NASA project called Nebula, which was launched in 2008 to build what eventually became what NASA called an "open-source compute controller."

Nebula researchers released the project's compute engine code as open source under an Apache 2.0 license, and the code was used by Rackspace in its development of a cloud-based storage product called Swift.

Rackspace and NASA then joined forces to use the technologies to create OpenStack. The first OpenStack code was released to the open-source community in 2010.

Chris Kemp, NASA's first CTO for IT and the leader of the Nebula project, said that while a product similar to OpenStack would likely have emerged without NASA, the agency's involvement accelerated its development "and gave it a lot more credibility -- quickly."

Rackspace CTO John Engates agreed, saying: "NASA lent a lot of credibility when it came to this being a truly open and altruistic effort rather than a Rackspace-centric effort with some ulterior motive. NASA made sure it was for everyone."

NASA CIO Linda Cureton is emphatic about NASA's role in the development of the technology. "If it were not for NASA, OpenStack would not exist," she said.

NASA raised eyebrows last year when it began using an cloud platform that's widely seen as a rival to OpenStack.

"Sometimes a prophet isn't appreciated in their hometown," Cureton said. "But I predict that as [OpenStack adoption] increases -- as signaled by IBM's announcement -- and the commercial viability continues to soar, NASA will be a consumer of the very capability they helped create."

"This is the way it should work. Our operating costs will be reduced, and we will help fuel the economic engine of our country," she added.

At its Pulse conference in Las Vegas, IBM announced that all of its cloud services and software "will be based on an open cloud architecture." At the same time, it also unveiled new private cloud offerings based on OpenStack.

Long a major supporter of Linux, IBM is also expected to be a major contributor to the OpenStack code base.

OpenStack clearly has momentum, said Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT. But, he added, the fact that "pretty formidable cloud players" like Amazon, Microsoft and Oracle aren't using it suggests that "the market at large may not be ready for a de facto standard."

The technology's long-term success "depends on how competition in the cloud market shakes out over the next few years," King added.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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