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5/27/2010
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Gov 2.0: NASA Readies Mission-Oriented Cloud Computing

The space agency's Nebula cloud computing environment will be used to provide on-demand computing and storage to NASA scientists and engineers.

NASA's Nebula Cloud Container
(click image to view gallery)
NASA's Nebula Cloud Container

NASA CIO Linda Cureton is eager to move beyond pilot testing of cloud computing and begin using cloud services in support of NASA's mission.

With its Nebula cloud computing environment, NASA has been an early adopter of the cloud model among government agencies and businesses. Nebula was launched as a pilot project at NASA's Ames Research Center in 2007, and it's now being expanded to the agency's Goddard Space Flight Center.

For the past couple of years, Nebula has been available on a limited basis to internal teams at NASA, and it has been used as a hosting environment for public-facing projects such as storing high-resolution images of the Moon and Mars. The redesigned USAspending.gov site recently became one of the first government-wide Web sites to run on the Nebula cloud.

Next, NASA plans to make Nebula available to its engineers as on-demand computing and storage resources for use on projects that may have intense, but short-term processing requirements. "Our early activities have been pilot-like," Cureton said in an interview at the Gov 2.0 Expo in Washington, D.C. "One of the things I want to do is move out the pilot stage and see how it applies to our mission." Cureton was appointed CIO of NASA in September.

Chris Kemp, former CIO of NASA's Ames Research Center, has been the project leader on Nebula. Kemp was recently named CTO for IT across the space agency, and Cureton says Kemp will bring "focus" to the broader implementation of cloud computing and other emerging technologies across NASA.

In an InformationWeek virtual event last month, Kemp said NASA planned to make Nebula's cloud services available via the government's Apps.gov portal this quarter. He said NASA would also release the Nebula open source software stack that it developed as part of the project in the same time frame. Nebula's computing hardware is housed in a portable shipping container (see image gallery above).

Speaking at Gov 2.0 Expo this week, Kemp said it takes one to two minutes to launch a virtual server on Nebula. That compares to as long as nine months to order and install a server using standard processes. At Gov 2.0 Expo, Kemp demonstrated a forthcoming Web application, developed in partnership with Microsoft and called Worldwide Telescope, that will make high-res imagery of Mars available to the public. Worldwide Telescope will be hosted on Nebula.

Cureton said that NASA is assessing its cloud computing strategy in parallel with an analysis of its data center requirements. In February, Federal CIO Vivek Kundra announced a government-wide data center consolidation initiative. In response to that, NASA is taking an inventory if its data center resources as a first step toward consolidation.

The advantages of cloud computing are "compelling," Cureton said during a Web 2.0 Expo keynote presentation. She outlined five primary advantages of the cloud model: reduced IT costs, faster deployment of IT resources, organizational flexibility, computing resource efficiency, and the ability to provide high-quality services to users and departments.

At the same time, Cureton said that not all applications are suited to the cloud. She advised government IT pros to look for opportunities to apply cloud services, to deploy clouds internally as pilot projects, and to develop "cloud centric" applications.

Government IT pros who are interested in hearing more about NASA's cloud computing rollout, can register to attend "Making The Private Cloud Real" on June 9 in Washington, D.C., where Myra Bambacus, senior advisor to the CIO at Goddard, will discuss Goddard Space Flight Center's implementation of Nebula and its broader cloud strategy.

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