NASA cloud storefront to offer scientists range of services

NASA is working on a cloud "storefront" that will give the agency’s scientists and engineers access to the computing resources and services they require regardless of their IT environment.

NASA Goddard’s computing environment ranges from desktops to high-performance computers, and the challenge for NASA officials is how to fit cloud computing into this range of environments, according to Adrian Gardner, CIO of NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center.

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Desktop computers, mobile devices, virtualized data centers and high-end supercomputers all have a range of attributes that drive how users make decisions about their compute requirements.

“One of things we started to talk about [at NASA] was a notion of an integrated management interface with cloud services and compute services, in general; in other words a storefront,” Gardner said.

The storefront will help NASA users to make decisions about how they gain access to computing resources, Gardner said during remarks at the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Cloud Computing Forum & Workshop in Gaithersburg, Md., Nov. 2.

NASA will now work on defining the attributes associated with each compute environment. For example, an attribute could be security or storage requirements.

An application with a high-end computer data set might not necessarily be suited for the cloud. Instead, that type of application might be suited for a virtualized data center or a hard metal data center, Gardner noted.

“We are working now with scientists and engineers to identify those” attributes, Gardner said.

The storefront concept takes NASA beyond the Nebula and OpenStack cloud initiatives, Gardner said.

Developed at that NASA Ames Research Center, Nebula is an open-source cloud computing platform, housed in a container at Ames, which provides on-demand, high-capacity computing, storage and network connectivity for NASA researchers. Nebula also allows NASA scientists to share large, complex data sets with external partners and the public.

OpenStack is an open-source cloud computing project by RackSpace and NASA that lets cloud adopters host their own scalable clouds and storage grids. More than 120 companies have joined the project.

NASA is looking at providing a wider range of cloud services through the storefront. As a result, Amazon, Microsoft and VMware will have to be involved in the discussions.

Gardner gave a sketch of how the storefront would work. NASA researchers would go into the storefront, lay out their high-level requirements such as security, type of data and jobs they’re going to run and how much storage is needed. There will then be some intelligence driving their options. After refining and validation of their requirements, they can decide to use a particular cloud service provider. There would also be a cloud broker between the user and cloud service provider that will help parse out where users need to go to get cloud services.

“I hope this will provide maximize flexibility for the user and return on that investment,” Gardner said.

There are challenges. For one, NASA wants to avoid vendor lock-in. Gardner noted that he is trying to maintain flexibility, which is tough to do in this type of environment. “You have to think about the kinds of choices you make entering into an engagement with cloud providers and the consequences.”

Still, NASA officials hope to tap the best of industry and government. Gardner recognized that many cloud service providers have invested in helping government solve some of its challenges. “What we want to do now is cherry-pick and think of those things that set you apart as a service provider in this space.”

The focus now is on niche management. NASA wants to hear what these vendors do well instead of hear vendors can do everything right. Gardner said he wants to know their “secret sauce." That is the type of discussion going on now with cloud providers in the private sector and in government as well.

The cloud initiative is not about technology, Gardner said. Instead, it is about making sure that scientist and engineers have the computing resources they need to accomplish the mission of NASA and the U.S. government.

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