The duo's companies both build on the free, open source OpenStack infrastructure-as-a-service project sponsored by NASA and Rackspace with participation from dozens of companies, including Citrix, Dell, Intel, and Cisco, among others. OpenStack itself grew directly out of NASA's Nebula project, famous for its use of shipping containers to house computing equipment.
Both companies, McKenty's Piston and Kemp's Nebula (borrowing the name of the NASA project) tout themselves as easy, flexible, automated, and secure ways for organizations to deploy and manage their own OpenStack-based private clouds. Both have said that they are targeting big data applications, and both plug into commodity hardware.
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The two new companies are just the latest examples in the long line of NASA technology, from hip replacements to fiber optics, that has made its way to the private sector. They also dovetail well with the White House's Startup America campaign and other federally-funded R&D and tech transfer efforts that the Obama administration has recently taken to calling "Lab to Market."
"NASA has had a long history of trying to commercialize technology," Kemp said in an interview Wednesday afternoon, noting that in his time at NASA, he saw a lot of effort being put into tech transfer. "However, it used to license patents, but what we did was, we saw the idea to open source to commercialize our technology." Kemp is no stranger to commercialization of government work, having collaborated with Google and Microsoft on Google Moon, Google Mars, and Microsoft World Wide Telescope.
During NASA's work with Google and Microsoft Research, Kemp realized that the infrastructure to host things like Google Moon within NASA didn't exist, and began the project that later became NASA's Nebula. McKenty was one of the first people hired to work on the new project, and was the effort's original architect. OpenStack later emerged from the project.
Kemp now says that he sees the Nebula project and OpenStack as a model for the government to follow to spur commercialization. "It's a real blueprint," he says. "This should be the rule, not the exception. The government has a real role to play here to jump-start companies."
McKenty's Piston plans to offer a USB key complete with OpenStack software and Piston's own cloud operating system, Piston Enterprise OS, or pentOS, with which administrators will be able to configure and manage an enterprise private cloud. The key can be used outside the data center to configure cloud servers, or can be plugged directly into network switches to automatically install and configure the system on an attached rack of servers.
Nebula, meanwhile, will offer a top-of-rack appliance that will use OpenStack and will automatically configure and manage a rack of servers as a private cloud environment. Kemp has called the appliance a "command center" for a private cloud. It manages a number of cloud services that would typically require servers to run, including the Swift object storage service, the Nova fabric controller for managing the cloud, the Glance virtual machine image service, database services, and a Web interface.
Kemp argues that Piston's software-only approach won't have the same level of capabilities as an appliance-based approach to OpenStack-based private clouds. "While I respect my former colleague's effort, there's no way they'll be as simple, reliable, cheap, or effective as what we're doing," he said. "If you just install software, there's more engineering work to be done, and you have to work to dynamically scale. The challenge is making the environment secure, stable, and scalable, and a USB key isn't going to provide you with a way to integrate with your security tools, to do Web acceleration."
Not only do the two companies compete, and not only do they represent government innovation that eventually makes it to market, but they may also serve as a reminder that it's hard for the government to keep good people. The founders of Nebula and Piston are both obvious innovators, and yet they left NASA for the private sector. Kemp has publicly said that he felt that opportunities to be entrepreneurial were constrained at the space agency.
Kemp isn't the only NASA vet at Nebula, either: his VP of engineering, Devin Carlen, was previously a senior Web systems architect at NASA Ames, where Project Nebula was born. Other NASA cloud computing vets now in the private sector include Rackable's Jesse Andrews, who was the technical lead on Project Nebula.