For NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Platform as a Service (PaaS) offers the best of both worlds.
Tom Soderstrom, JPL's chief technology officer for IT, says that Infrastructure as a Service allows a scalability that has helped the lab out of some tough spots. For example, when the Curiosity rover landed on Mars, web traffic spiked to extremely high levels. IaaS allowed the lab to rapidly rachet up the number of servers it was using in the cloud, then decrease when demand subsided.
Using Software as a Service, the lab doesn't have to worry about the details of its software licensing. Rather than having to purchase, install, update and support an application, all the lab's IT staff has to worry about is adding a new subscription.
In situations when it has implemented PaaS, the lab has found that it derives both these benefits. A cloud platform allows the lab to scale up the software and hardware it needs for high-demand development efforts, such as during the development and testing of its Be A Martian website. The lab also avoids the headache of having to deal with purchasing the hardware and software needed for such a project.
"The cloud is really about abstraction at higher and higher levels of detail, and that's what we see with PaaS," Soderstrom says. "We don't have to worry about the infrastructure."
For the Be A Martian website, JPL used Microsoft's Azure platform, which provided the hardware and software needed during development, as well as the infrastructure required to handle the huge influx of users who registered for the site after its launch.
"Cloud computing really helped," Soderstrom says. "Immediately, we got a lot of hits, and it easily scaled up and down on demand."
As JPL improves its use of cloud computing, Soderstrom expects a hybrid cloud model — in which the lab uses elements of its own private cloud as well as services from one or more public cloud providers — to be the most useful. The lab can use its private cloud on projects that demand the highest levels of security and can turn to the public clouds for projects that require availability and scalability.
Ultimately, the cloud allows scientists and engineers at JPL to focus on their mission instead of IT details. "Focusing on getting more science from Mars is a lot more important than focusing on the details of the infrastructure," Soderstrom says. "That's the true benefit of the cloud."