Feb 10 2010

Moving to Hybrid Infrastructures

Through the Clouds

While more than 40 years have passed since man first landed on the moon, only recently has the general public been able to access the wealth of Lunar Orbiter imagery and data that was collected during the years of the Apollo program.

While more than 40 years have passed since man first landed on the moon, only recently has the general public been able to access the wealth of Lunar Orbiter imagery and data that was collected during the years of the Apollo program.

The technical challenges to making such historically significant data available were simply too great and the benefits unclear. The new millennium has connected us in a way that would have been unimaginable 40 years ago. Millions of people not only have an interest in the work and science that NASA leads, but they also have contributions to make.

NASA has often partnered with groups outside of government to make its data more easily consumable by the general public. In that way, academic and research institutions can delve deeper into NASA data, providing insights to expand and build upon our body of knowledge about space.

When information is shared, everyone benefits.

But the journey has not been easy. Finding a cost-effective and secure way to deliver massive data sets has proved challenging. Another challenge is the tangle of public-facing websites: Built on many different platforms and lacking consistency and visual coherency, they can result in a disjointed end-user experience. Small research teams at NASA that want to create a dynamic, data-driven website face prohibitively high setup and operating costs, long provisioning times, vendor lock-in, and portability and interoperability issues. This is unacceptable.

30,000 CPU cores,
or 30 petabytes

Processing capacity

of each Nebula


That’s why the idea of a cloud computing platform was appealing, and why we launched the Nebula pilot in 2008. Using Nebula, a researcher can rapidly provision IT infrastructure (such as servers and data storage) and software over the Internet on demand. Like a utility, computing services are paid for only when they are used. Sharing IT services from a centralized pool of powerful generic machines can also provide incredible cost savings for large federal organizations.

Nebula is a hybrid cloud, which means it acts as a sort of “data air lock” between NASA’s secured internal networks and the outside world. By using open application programming interfaces, NASA can port its data and code to Nebula to be accessed securely by outside organizations via commercial clouds.

The Ultimate Collaboration

Our goal was to reduce the cost of hosting data-driven websites, increase NASA’s IT security posture and enable the agency to engage the American public by making it less expensive and easier to host websites that encourage public participation and collaboration. This is a goal of many agencies.

The Office of Management and Budget has urged agencies to investigate how they can take advantage of cloud computing. Launched as an open-source pilot, Nebula could serve as a federal cloud test­bed. Pilot projects are vital to the health of government IT. Until agencies understand cloud technology and operating models, they can’t be smart buyers or make responsible contributions to evolving standards and policy efforts.

Nebula is one of the first government clouds that meets federal security requirements, including the Federal Information Security Management Act, and one of the few physically located within a federally secured perimeter. The hope is that Nebula can help solve key problems involving security, portability and interoperability that agencies will face in implementing cloud computing. NASA is working to make the code available to the public so that they can build their own clouds. We want to continue building on the technology through open collaboration. When development is open, everybody benefits.

Other agencies can modify and contribute code to the Nebula architecture to solve problems. In that way, the government will realize the benefits of this technology more quickly. We intend to share Nebula’s operating model and provide visibility into the entire ecosystem, including investments in R&D, hardware and software so that other agencies will benefit from lessons learned in the development of both the technology and operating model.

Our goal is for other agencies to learn from and build on the NASA experience. We all need to understand the impact cloud computing has on an agency’s budget and infrastructure procurements so that we can be better stewards of taxpayers’ money.

<p>Photo: Robert Houser</p>