NASA Rides the Cloud Beyond Mars

Grazed from Internet Evolution. Author: Mara Jander.

Now that the initial euphoria over the safe landing of NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars has passed, it's time to start asking some questions about the technology behind this amazing mission and what, if anything, it can contribute to the knowledge of enterprise IT pros.

Actually, IT pros may find they're right in the swim with NASA (to use an Olympic metaphor), perhaps even pulling ahead of it, when it comes to cloud computing.

Case in point: Given the government's verbal emphasis on cloud's value (despite resistance from key agencies), cloud computing hasn't factored very prominently in the Curiosity mission. Indeed, when I phoned Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL) yesterday, a spokesperson denied that any cloud services at all were used in the making of Curiosity...

Maybe that's not surprising, though, given that earlier this summer, NASA reportedly pulled back from OpenStack, a cloud computing project the agency started with cloud hoster Rackspace. Apparently, once the major IT vendors had adopted OpenStack and contributed to it, NASA believed its work on the project was done.

This was evident when, in May 2012, multiple news outlets reported on a talk given at an Uptime Institute symposium by Karen Petraska, NASA service executive for computing services, in which she stated NASA's intent to drop development on OpenStack in favor of being a "smart consumer" of commercial cloud services and not a competitor in that sector. (See the full talk below.)

Shortly after that talk, NASA CIO Linda Cureton blogged about NASA's adopted of cloud services from Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure.

And at least one journalist reports that NASA tested its Websites before the Curiosity launch with a cloud-based service called SOASTA.

[Note: Oddly, the testing doesn't seem to have worked. The New York Times reported yesterday: "NASA's Web sites collapsed under the throngs of people across the Internet attempting to look at the new Mars photos." A spokesperson at JPL denied to me that any Websites had failed.]

It's an open question about just what NASA is now doing with cloud services. While using AWS as its main cloud platform, JPL still seems to be intent on developing clouds of its own. As of last month, JPL issued a job posting for a data services engineer in its Data Services Group. The job description included the following:

Will be a member of the Operations Planning Software team, developing cutting edge applications for operation of robotic systems on Mars, deep space and on Earth, using RESTful services and cloud computing... Will develop a cloud-based system for distribution of Mars rover imagery to a world-wide community of scientists and engineers. [Emphasis added.]

For its earth-bound missions, JPL also has an Airborne Cloud Computing Environment (ACCE) in development, which is government-funded and comprises a "data portal through which the distributed collection of airborne data from multiple missions can be accessed either individually or in bulk."

So what can we expect of NASA's use of cloud services in the future? Several approaches, it seems, all of them in various stages of development. Like many private-sector enterprises, NASA appears to be feeling its way forward to a combination of private and public cloud services on a per-project basis.