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5/22/2009
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NASA Launches 'Nebula' Compute Cloud

The space agency's open source cloud project could be used in support of space missions and a more open Web strategy.

NASA is ramping up a cloud computing initiative that could be used in support of its space missions and to give Earth-bound observers greater participation in the space program.

An early version of NASA's computing cloud, called Nebula, is already up and running.

Until now, NASA hasn't said much about its plans for cloud computing. Chris Kemp, CIO of NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., mentioned Nebula for the first time this week at the Federal IT on a Budget Forum in Washington, D.C. In an interview, Kemp said the Nebula cloud is operating and that it's being used to host a Web site that goes by the same name, Nebula.nasa.gov.

On that site, NASA describes Nebula as a cloud computing environment that integrates "open source components into a seamless, self-service platform. It provides high-capacity computing, storage, and network connectivity and uses a virtualized, scalable approach to achieve cost and energy efficiencies."

NASA said Nebula can be used for the rapid development of policy-compliant, secure Web applications and that it will be used in support of education, public outreach, collaboration, and mission support. "Built from the ground up around principles of transparency and public collaboration, Nebula is also an open source project," according to NASA.

NASA describes Nebula as a combination of infrastructure, platform, and software as a service, and the space agency has created an IT architecture in support of that. Components include the Eucalyptus software developed at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the Lustre file system deployed on 64-bit storage nodes, the Django Web application framework, the SOLR indexing and search engine, and an integrated development environment. Nebula will be compatible with Amazon Web Services, which means AWS-compatible tools will work with it and Nebula virtual servers can run on Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud.

Among other potential uses, Nebula could be used in support of a proposed overhaul of NASA's Web sites. In a draft white paper published last month, Kemp proposes that NASA's many sites be consolidated into a "single facility" with a Web application framework that would include templates for user-generated blogs, wikis, and other content and an API for other development. Kemp compares it conceptually to Salesforce.com's Force.com and Google's App Engine services. Such an approach would support the public's desire to be more actively engaged with NASA and its space missions, Kemp wrote.

Other senior technologists with NASA have also begun talking about how cloud computing might be used in support of the U.S. space program. In an interview this week with Federal News Radio, NASA acting CIO Bobby German pointed to the work being done at Ames Research Center on Nebula as an example of where things are heading.

"They think they have an excellent environment to make this capability available," he said.

Tomas Soderstrom, IT CTO with NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., has been on the road visiting early adopters to investigate how cloud computing might be used at NASA. Soderstrom said one possibility would be to take data from NASA's various missions and put it in the cloud. Among the challenges, he said, are to work through the technology licensing and policy issues involved.

In a blog post in March, Linda Cureton, CIO of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, called cloud computing a disruptive technology and advised her peers to "do something."

"You don't have to move your entire enterprise into the cloud, just take the first step," Cureton wrote.


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