NASA: Moving to mobile is win-win
Adopting a new model of computing such as using mobile devices sometimes involves giving up something to get something. But NASA sees its move to mobile as win-win.
“It’s not really a trade-off,” said Sasi Kumar Pillay, the agency’s chief technology officer for IT. “Usually, when you talk about engineering, there’s talk of trade-offs. But this is one of those unusual situations in which almost everything that I’m talking about is for the benefit.”
Unlike the military and intelligence agencies, which require heavy encryption and security measures to protect their data, the space agency’s mission is sharing scientific data with the public. This does not eliminate the need for security, but it does involve a different approach to protecting data and the structure of the mobile network on which it depends, Pillay said in an interview.
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Mobility allows NASA staff members to be more productive, and, because many people use mobile devices as their primary source for data and communication, it lets the agency reach out to the public more efficiently. Personally owned mobile devices also are at the heart of "bring your own device to work," or BYOD, programs, another growing trend in government.
The advent of mobile devices is rewriting organizations’ IT infrastructures because they affect IT services and how they are designed, Pillay said. He added that it’s easier to change an application by putting the latest version in an app store.
There are also varying ways to implement access methodologies. For example, an organization or user may only want to use a shell of an application on a mobile device and keep most of its functions on a server or, conversely, retain more of the software on the device. “When you have mobility as the cornerstone of your strategy, there are a lot of things that you can do differently,” Pillay said.
From an applications development perspective, this allows organizations to make more use of mobile device capabilities while being able to roll out application versions as necessary. This approach is changing the way agencies manage computing, he said.
Launching a mobile applications strategy is challenging because there are many moving parts, Pillay said. NASA has set up a mobile applications store, and the agency is also examining ways to seamlessly import vendor store information and content. NASA is talking to vendors about the most streamlined way to do this. The agency has currently only rolled out a few applications, but the long-range view is to migrate to this new environment once it is developed and launched, he said.
Another key factor is security. Because of firewalls, application vendors traditionally did not have to think about security. But Pillay said a firewall is only one facet of protection. “It doesn’t absolve you from not integrating security into your application,” he added.
Civilian and government organizations need to meet with application developers to discuss how to change their security models by building security into the application and the data storage component, Pillay said. He added that NASA is looking at security tools to harden applications that it has already developed without the need to spend more money to change them over.
NASA is working on a process that will allow employees to write applications and submit them to the applications store. There are already some groups in the agency that have developed and submitted applications for NASA, which are available in the agency’s Apple App Store, he said.
But NASA does not have to develop all of these applications itself, Pillay said. Crowdsourcing is one way that the agency can develop applications, which the agency then checks for security and licensing purposes. These are additional opportunities that should not be overlooked, he added.
NASA recently launched the International Space Application Challenge, which has published several agency challenges, allowing people around the world to develop and then submit apps. Over the course of a week, users addressed the challenges in a way that allowed NASA to pick up and continue developing them, Pillay said.
The agency needs to work on the service side of the applications system to ensure that they work and function within the environment, Pillay said. This is a technological tipping point, and as soon as NASA has additional experience with mobile systems, he said, it will be able to fully embrace an enterprise mobile strategy.
“It will take time, but I think it will be one of these things that will feed on itself,” he said. “Once you tip over to the other side, I think there will be a significant acceleration in terms of both acceptance and implementation.”