NASA is backing open-source cloud computing with a single goal in mind: to stick to space exploration and stop running data centres.
Chris Kemp, NASA's chief technology officer, said the agency's long-term plan is to move internal IT resources to external clouds over the next 10 to 20 years.
"I don't see why NASA needs to operate any [IT] infrastructure," he said at Gartner's Symposium/ITxpo in Orlando last month. "We can build space probes, we can build deep space networks, we can stay out on the frontiers where the American public wants us to be, and not spend over $1 billion a year on IT infrastructure."
Kemp believes that compute resources are fundamentally a utility, no different than electric power. And "we don't own power plants right now - we don't own other services that are provided as utilities," he said.
"I don't see why NASA needs to operate any infrastructure," said Kemp. "We can build space probes, we can build deep space networks, we can stay out on the frontiers, where the American public wants us to be and not spend over $1 billion a year on it infrastructure."
It was author Nicholas Carr who popularised the notion that compute resources would become a commodity that in time would be accessed as utilities now are.
But so far, the computer industry is still far from operating like a utility. Many cloud platforms are still proprietary and unplugging from one provider's cloud-based apps to another's is difficult.
That's where Kemp and NASA have stepped in with a potential solution.
NASA developed its own cloud computing platform, called Nebula, and has released it as open source under an Apache 2.0 license. Cloud computing and hosting provider Rackspace, which had developed its own internal cloud management platform, contacted NASA about using some of Nebula's code. That effort led to OpenStack, which emerged from Rackspace, NASA and others this summer as an open source cloud platform.
For NASA, Kemp said, the benefits of open source are clear: It expands the number of developers working on OpenStack code and enables NASA to help influence its development and standards. "This furthers our objective of having off-the-shelf products that meet our requirements," which include less custom development and fewer proprietary systems, Kemp said.
"Our mandate is to commercialise technology," said Kemp, noting that code from NASA's Nebula cloud software management stack is now part of the OpenStack technology. "That could be one of the most important pieces of technology that NASA has commercialized in a long time," he said.
NASA's long-range plan is to increase reliance on cloud-based services, transitioning from internal systems over a 10- to 20-year period. Kemp believes it is possible that the agency may eventually get much, if not all, of its compute resources delivered via external cloud resources.
At this point Kemp said the agency doesn't officially use public cloud services - though some researchers may be using public clouds on their own - but they are being investigated.