Gov Forum: NASA Seeks To Optimize IT Innovation

The space agency's newly appointed CTO for IT outlines a plan to make technology innovation more widely available to NASA engineers and scientists.

John Foley, Editor, InformationWeek

June 17, 2010

3 Min Read

NASA's new CTO for IT, Chris Kemp, wants to more fully exploit the myriad technology innovations created by the space agency's researchers, scientists, and technologists. Kemp this week shared his strategy for channeling that innovation in new ways.

NASA CIO Linda Cureton last month announced Kemp's appointment to CTO for IT, a newly created position. Kemp is responsible for NASA's Enterprise Architecture division and for introducing new and emerging technologies. He's also charged with forming a council of CTOs from NASA field centers and mission teams that will foster innovation across NASA. Kemp was previously CIO of NASA's Ames Research Center in northern California.

Speaking at InformationWeek's Government IT Leadership Forum on June 15 in Washington, D.C., Kemp outlined a plan for getting started with that work. One goal is to reduce the number of "disconnected pockets of innovation" at NASA and share new developments more broadly. "How do we innovate on how we innovate?" he asked. NASA spends close to $2 billion annually on IT and technology development.

NASA's 10 field centers should look for opportunities to establish ties with technology companies in their area, Kemp said. Ames Research Center, for example, is located in Silicon Valley, near the offices of Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. "It's a unique opportunity we should take advantage of," he says.

Kemp has experience creating such industry partnerships. While director of strategic business development at Ames, prior to serving as CIO, he struck collaboration agreements with Google and Microsoft, resulting in NASA's high-resolution imagery of the Moon and Mars being make available on the Web through Google Earth and Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope.

Kemp says NASA must find ways to accommodate a new "unconstrained" generation of employees who are mobile, always connected, and users of social media and crowd-sourcing applications. "The challenge here is that the culture at NASA and a lot of other agencies isn't ready for this," he said. But NASA must learn to accommodate the expectations and requirements of its new employees, he added.

At Ames, Kemp was project leader for a cloud computing pilot project, called Nebula, that's now being expanded to Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Nebula's hardware and software are housed in a mobile shipping container with a capacity of 16 Petabytes of data storage and 12,000 CPU cores. The Nebula project, however, caused political, budget, and personnel disruptions within NASA, and "it wasn't pleasant," Kemp said.

Kemp's point is that disruptive technologies are just that -- disruptive. It goes with the territory for CTOs, he said. Kemp favors "elegant" technologies over complex systems with many moving parts.

It's important to understand the "as is" state of IT infrastructure in assessing where emerging technologies will fit, Kemp said. "This is all driving toward a repeatable process for evaluating the current state of NASA's IT infrastructure and articulating our future roadmap," he added. That process involves the development of technology prototypes, followed by case studies, and, where appropriate, investment.

Kemp plans to use metrics to gauge the effectiveness of IT pilot projects. He advocates completing pilots within three to four months and considers "failure" to be part of the process. "The idea is to fail fast," he said. "Movement is key."

About the Author(s)

John Foley

Editor, InformationWeek

John Foley is director, strategic communications, for Oracle Corp. and a former editor of InformationWeek Government.

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