Chris C. Kemp, Chief Information Officer, NASA Ames Research Center

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Chris C. Kemp, a high-tech entrepreneur, was the chief architect of Classmates.com and founder of an online grocery shopping service before joining the NASA Ames Research Center as the director of strategic business development in 2006. In that role, he forged an alliance with Google Inc. to help disseminate NASA imagery and data through the search giant’s popular virtual globe, Google Earth.

In 2008, Kemp became the chief information officer (CIO) at Ames, a role that is allowing him to collaborate with commercial firms including Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. Kemp also serves as chairman of the NASA Web Council, a group made up of public affairs and information technology officials who oversee the space agency’s Internet-related policies and investments.

As CIO, Kemp oversees the information technology infrastructure at Mountain View, Calif.-based Ames, including networks and data centers used locally, as well as the infrastructure of NASA-wide projects such as the agency’s Nebula Cloud Computing initiative and NASA’s Security Operations Center, which coordinates the space agency’s defense of its information technology and response to cyber security threats.

Kemp, a space enthusiast who studied computer engineering at University of Alabama, Huntsville, before withdrawing to focus on his first start up, attended Space Camp as a child. Kemp said he cannot remember when he began writing software but it was probably around the age of 10. By 15, he was working in an Apple Computer store. Kemp spoke recently with Space News correspondent Debra Werner.

 

Why did you come to NASA?

Because it’s NASA.

 

Could you make more money in the private sector?

I did make more money in the private sector. I was given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to come to Silicon Valley and help put partnerships in place with companies like Google. When given that opportunity, it’s not about money. It’s about the cool opportunity to work for a place people dream about working for and it’s about making a difference.

 

What does cloud computing offer NASA?

We generate a huge amount of data. In order to make it publicly accessible, we need to begin thinking differently about how we build our infrastructure as an enterprise.

As we start building instruments that bring back higher- and higher-fidelity data and we start bringing back petabytes or even exabytes of data, we’re going to need to make the cost of processing and storing data as low as possible so that we can put our money into the missions and into science.

 

Does cloud computing create new security problems?

A lot of the challenges enterprises and federal agencies face with security in the cloud is an issue when you are talking about the consumer or commercial cloud where your data are in some undefined data center on the Internet that might be in another country or might be handled by employees who are not U.S. citizens or certainly don’t have background checks.

What’s unique about Nebula is that it’s based here at Ames. It is in a federal information technology security perimeter. You have to go through two fences to get to it. As long as the folks using Nebula are using it inside the Ames and the NASA network, they don’t have to worry about any of those challenges you typically have to worry about in the commercial cloud environment.

 

Is Nebula a NASA–wide initiative?

It started as a pilot project here at Ames. We have reformulated it as a NASA program. We’re working on projects right now that address challenges across the agency.

 

What’s an example?

A great example is the absolutely elastic amount of interest that there is in a mission launch. Right now we have a partnership with Yahoo that allows us to stream three different video feeds through our www.NASA.gov portal. We want to expand that.

We’ve been talking to Yahoo about collaborating with them to move that into the Nebula cloud. We can have open-source encoders that are encoding those video streams in high definition and then serving them up.

 

You’ve been an advocate for these partnerships with high-tech companies. What do those partnerships offer NASA?

Each of these collaborations is unique. What we are allowed to do under the Space Act of 1958 is enter into agreements where there is mutual benefit to both NASA and a commercial partner. When we find these opportunities, it’s great for taxpayers.

A great example is when we made Mars and the Moon available through Google Earth. We were reimbursed to write software that translates a lot of the imagery and content into formats that were accessible in Google Earth.

One of the first applications of Nebula will be a similar collaboration with Microsoft where we’re reimbursed to post almost a half a petabyte of full-resolution Mars data and ultimately full-resolution Moon data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter instruments. We will be allowing anybody who has access to the Internet to use a Web browser to see that full-resolution data. These partnerships allow NASA to do things the agency otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do or that taxpayers would have had to pay for.

 

What is the NASA Web Council?

The Web Council is a way for people at NASA centers and within NASA mission directorates to work together to establish policies and make investment decisions relating to the Web and Web technology. The challenge has always been that Web technology as a discipline needed to be considered strategically as being one-part CIO and one-part public affairs. The Web Council bridges those two worlds and looks at the Web as a platform for NASA.

 

For specific missions, there are sometimes multiple Web sites with conflicting information.

That is precisely why we designed Nebula and why we created the Web Council. Unfortunately, these challenges are not going to be addressed overnight. NASA was an early adopter of the Web and NASA has embraced the Internet as a way of communicating with the public. One of the challenges associated with that is that until very recently, a Web-application framework was not available. As a result, there are thousands of sites out there. We have a lot to integrate and a lot to pull together to make that a more cohesive and organized experience on the Web.

Nebula allows sites to be built on a common platform and a common infrastructure. That greatly decreases our information technology security attack surface. Ultimately, if a large percentage of our sites were in a common platform service provider, whether it be Nebula or anything else, we would be far more secure as an agency. That’s one of our many goals.

 

Are these all long-term projects?

We are already addressing some incredible challenges with Nebula. A great example of this will be this fall as we release Mars data in the WorldWide Telescope in collaboration with Microsoft. So while there are ambitious long-term strategies, there are short-term wins that are capturing the imagination of folks here at NASA and hopefully the public as well.

 

Have your goals changed since coming to
Ames
?

No. That is one of the most wonderful things about this job. I found myself first in this opportunity of putting collaborations together. My goal there was to find opportunities here in Silicon Valley to make NASA connect better with the American public. As a CIO I’ve tried to solve problems. I’ve tried to treat each of these challenges as a startup inside NASA. I’ve tried to build great teams of people who truly understand what their objectives are and how they fit together.

 

Is it more challenging because you are not hiring your own employees?

Yes, but one of the wonderful things about NASA is that there are a lot of smart people here. While I can’t recruit people, I can reach across this agency, find super-smart people and get them excited about some of these challenges.

 

What’s exciting on the horizon?

We’ve been working on making Nebula accessible within NASA and within other federal agencies. One thing that is critical to cloud computing is making it available to anyone who needs it when they need it. That means if I have an application that needs to crunch a bunch of data, I literally need to be able to have the software itself start creating additional storage.

This is very different than the traditional approach where you attempt to anticipate the maximum capacity that you might need and buy it all. Then, it is generally idle when you don’t need it. Cloud computing does not work that way at all. And it’s not paid for that way either.

One of the important things about Nebula is the opportunity to integrate a cloud computing platform into the processes within the federal government, not only from a security perspective and a procurement perspective but just from a workflow perspective. If the only thing that comes out of Nebula is a better understanding of how to leverage cloud from within the federal government, then we will be better stewards of the taxpayers’ money when we go out and procure cloud infrastructure from the various companies that I’m sure will emerge and provide various options and commercial offerings.