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How a NASA Open Source Startup Could Change the IT Universe

Former NASA CTO explains how the open source OpenStack project came to be and why it could be NASA's most important contribution.

Tang and velcro aren't the only things that NASA helped to invent that are part of our modern world. NASA has also played a pivotal role in the emergence of cloud technology that could reshape the vast IT world here on Earth.

Chris Kemp, the first CTO of IT at NASA, helped to lead an effort at the U.S. space agency to create a cloud compute platform. The original 9,000 lines of code, known as Nova, have become the cornerstone of the OpenStack cloud project. OpenStack now has the backing of major IT vendors, including IBM, Dell, HP, Cisco, AT&T and Intel. Kemp left NASA in 2011 and is currently the CEO of Nebula, a startup that is set to deliver commercially supported OpenStack gear.

In an exclusive interview with InternetNews Kemp explained how the open source cloud effort came to be and how NASA is already reaping the rewards.

Inspired by Google

When Kemp started at NASA back in 2006, he helped to lead the partnership with Google. It's an experience that shaped his thinking about the availability of compute resources.

"It was through working with Google that I came to realize how much of a force multiplier it was to give every one of your employees access to infinite compute and storage resources," Kemp said. "That's really what the people that work at Google feel that they've got."

In contrast, at the same time NASA engineers were somewhat budget restrained in terms of compute resources. So Kemp wanted to see what would happen if those engineers were given access to a large pool of compute and storage infrastructure.

"Incredible things happened," Kemp said.

Kemp and his team at NASA then replicated the system so it was in use by hundreds of groups. It even caught the eye of the White House.

Startup CEO

The approach that led to the creation of NASA's cloud compute effort was born out of the startup mentality. Kemp noted that prior to NASA he had broad experience in the startup world, including Classmates.com.

"I've always been in a founder, CEO role," Kemp said. "When I was at NASA I always viewed my role there as an entrepreneur and I viewed my team as a startup team."

Kemp motivated his team of NASA engineers the same way that he would a team at a startup company. He tried to find people from across the organization and motivate them by giving them something important to do. He worked to make sure they were aware that their contributions mattered.

In taking the NASA cloud computing project forward into the open source world as part of OpenStack, Kemp realized that even more could be done. NASA partnered with Rackspace in July 2010, to form the OpenStack project.

"With NASA we had the opportunity to inspire a community," Kemp said. "A lot of OpenStack's success has to do with people that deep down inside were inspired by the space program and wanted to contribute code to a project that they knew would help NASA to explore the solar system."

NASA's Most Successful Project

Today OpenStack is the backbone of cloud offerings from Cisco, Dell, HP and many others in the emerging cloud market. The project has become so successful, in fact, that NASA no longer needs to be actively involved.

NASA continued to make code contributions as part of the OpenStack effort, until fairly recently.

"NASA spends billions of dollars trying to commercialize technology, it tries to take all of the money we invest in the space program and translate it into value for the average American," Kemp said. "OpenStack could possibly be one of the most successful spinoffs in the history of NASA."

OpenStack's destiny is to reshape the $3 trillion IT market, enabling a whole new era of companies to innovate and empower people. The success of OpenStack has already benefited NASA: instead of having to fund development, NASA can now simply just buy OpenStack services.

"The Nova/Nebula team had gotten this thing so far, so quickly that it (NASA) can now buy it from Dell or HP or a whole host of companies," Kemp said. "NASA didn't need to be in this role of incubator anymore, it could do what it normally does, which is to procure the technology from the commercial ecosystem."

In Kemp's view, NASA did the right thing by stepping back from the project and letting the private sector step in with OpenStack.

"Mission accomplished."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.




Tags: open source, cloud computing


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