NASA's Next Mission: Cloud Computing - InformationWeek

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7/30/2009
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John Foley
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NASA's Next Mission: Cloud Computing

As NASA prepares for the return of space shuttle Endeavour and, beyond that, its next-generation Aris moon rocket, NASA's IT experts are thinking about what's next for the agency's data centers. An early adopter of cloud computing, NASA could play a central role in the U.S. government's move to virtualized, on-demand IT resources.

As NASA prepares for the return of space shuttle Endeavour and, beyond that, its next-generation Aris moon rocket, NASA's IT experts are thinking about what's next for the agency's data centers. An early adopter of cloud computing, NASA could play a central role in the U.S. government's move to virtualized, on-demand IT resources.As I reported in May, NASA's Ames Research Center has begun creating a cloud computing environment called Nebula. Led by NASA Ames CIO Chris Kemp, the project is fairly well along. NASA has created a detailed IT architecture, and there's even a Nebula Web site, nebula.nasa.gov.

The Nebula cloud is in limited beta test now, and NASA is accepting applications from interested parties that want to give it a try. Take note: NASA is making Nebula available not just to its own staffers, but to employees and contractors of other federal agencies.

That's significant because it positions NASA to eventually provide cloud services beyond its own internal needs. Is that a good idea? NASA is asking itself the same question. "NASA as a service provider takes us into a new realm," Mike Hecker, NASA's associate CIO for architecture and infrastructure, told Nextgov.com. "We're still debating if that's a good idea or not." According to Nextgov.com, NASA has discussed the possibility with the Office of Management and Budget, which is where Federal CIO Vivek Kundra works.

This gets to the concept of cloud computing "nodes," which InformationWeek has touched on several times recently. (See "US Agencies Think About Establishing Cloud Nodes" and "How Government's Driving Cloud Computing Ahead.") The basic idea is that the feds would devise a common cloud architecture, and agencies like NASA would link their clouds together in one, big, interoperable uber-cloud.

There's reason to believe that NASA is well suited to support a major cloud node. It tends to be a more compute-intensive organization than most U.S. civilian agencies and more open than defense and intelligence agencies. What's more, the cyclical nature of NASA's missions would seem to lend itself to the cloud model, with spikes and dips in computing activity. Presumably, NASA sometimes has spare compute cycles and other IT infrastructure that could be shared in a fashion similar to Amazon Web Services.

NASA's IT team has demonstrated high interest in cloud computing, which means there's no huge organizational barrier to overcome to make this happen. Tom Soderstrom, CTO of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, has been on the road visiting cloud computing practitioners as a way of coming up to speed. And NASA Goddard CIO Linda Cureton has been urging her counterparts not to wait, but to take their first steps toward cloud computing. Apparently, Cureton's message is getting through.

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