NASA Gets Cloud Experience Through Nebula - InformationWeek
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2/8/2010
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Charles Babcock
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NASA Gets Cloud Experience Through Nebula

Under CIO Vivek Kundra, the federal government has launched Apps.gov, an online marketplace of software where federal agencies can find what they need, sometimes at bargain prices. But behind the scenes, it's made a much bigger bet on cloud computing. It's NASA's Nebula cloud at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

Under CIO Vivek Kundra, the federal government has launched Apps.gov, an online marketplace of software where federal agencies can find what they need, sometimes at bargain prices. But behind the scenes, it's made a much bigger bet on cloud computing. It's NASA's Nebula cloud at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.NASA sometimes serves as the poster child of how the federal government tends to build out data centers. Federal IT as a whole has gone from 498 data centers ten years ago to over 1,200 today, and the number will double again if a more effective means of supplying the computing needs of federal agencies isn't found. Kundra has made only a few, brief references to NASA's project. Nevertheless, I think NASA's Nebula is a prototype for how the space agency will try to deal with this issue. If it succeeds, other agencies are sure to follow.

In that sense, cloud computing may not only serve as a new way for solitary business or individual users to tap into sizable infrastructure resource whenever they need it. It may also serve as a way to halt the spread of purpose-built resources, one say for the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., another for the Houston Spacecraft Center in Houston and another for the Kennedy Launch Site in Florida, and replace them with cloud facilities, built to a common standard and maintained by a single staff. That is, the users in their respective agencies may be wide spread, but the compute facilities could be concentrated and managed as a pooled resource.

But that's getting ahead of ourselves. Nebula is still in beta test until sometime in March. Until then, it's an experiment in installing a 40-foot shipping container full of servers at Ames Research Center and putting them to work as a cloud resource.

Neither Kundra nor any NASA official has stated that achieving one data center architecture or consolidating data centers is a goal in building the trial cloud. Instead, their comments have focused on such observations as NASA has built and maintains 3,000 Web sites. The federal government as a whole maintains 100,000. How many of these sites could be standardized and run in the Nebula cloud? If they could, wouldn't that result in a savings to the taxpayer in terms of staff skills needed and number of staff devoted to Web site maintenance tasks?

And couldn't such a cloud resource provide the means of further engagement between NASA and the public on space missions? That's precisely what NASA is counting on and has already experimented with one form of public engagement in the cloud.

At 4:30 a.m. on Oct. 9, NASA crashed the second stage of a Centaur rocket into a crater in the moon's south polar region as the final act of its Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite or LCROSS mission. A satellite already orbiting the moon was filled with instruments to examine the debris thrown up by the crash. On a Web site dubbed "Citizen Science," NASA had aired its intent to create an "ejecta plume" of debris from the crash and called on amateur astronomers to point their 10-inch or larger telescopes and spectrographs at the moon's south polar region and capture an image of the plume early Oct. 9. Such efforts would build the photographic record of an area of the moon that was permanently in the dark and perhaps, through spectrographic analysis, reveal whether water could be found in the region.

The plume proved less photogenic than NASA had hoped but nevertheless revealed small amounts of water in the dust and debris raised by the crash. It posted some amateur astronomer images that it received on the Citizen Science Web site for 30 days before moving on to other things. NASA as a whole got a taste of how it might re-engage the public in scientific missions and use cloud based facilities for creating new avenues of interaction.

The Nebula cloud is built with Cisco Systems Unified Computing System blade servers. These are highly virtualizeable, x86 blades that in Nebula's case have been packed in a 40-foot shipping container by, Verari, a firm that specializes in data centers that can be shipped as a container on a truck. (A second supplier is Silicon Mechanics of Bothell, Wash.)When the container is unloaded, it is plugged into a power source and the servers inside boot up, without need for construction of a regular, raised floor data center. "The container model is great because we can move them to wherever we need them," said Chris Kemp, NASA Ames CIO. That might include a university site where researchers are heavily engaged in a NASA project or a launch site.

So far, many groups inside NASA have experimented in using the Nebula cloud. One agency outside it, the Office of Management and Budget, also uses it, according to NASA Ames spokesmen. NASA is gaining valuable experience in how to build and manage a cloud computing facility, with many of the details of its operation still to come. I hope to add to this report at a future date.

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