NASA Blazing a Trail for Federal Cloud Computing

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SAN FRANCISCO — U.S. President Barack Obama’s top technology officer revealed plans to dramatically increase the federal government’s reliance on cloud computing and cited NASA as one of the agencies leading the way in this arena.

In a Sept. 15 briefing at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., Vivek Kundra, U.S. chief information officer, announced the creation of an online site called Apps.gov, which is designed to make it as easy for government personnel to buy accounting, Web site and e-mail programs as it is for individuals and small businesses. Not only will this approach save time, but it will also save money by eliminating the need for each agency to build multiple data processing and storage centers, Kundra said. Federal agencies spend more than $75 billion a year on information technology, including $19 billion on infrastructure alone, he added.

The announcement was made at Ames to acknowledge NASA’s pioneering work in the field of cloud computing, which refers to the use of Internet-based services to offer convenient and quick access to a shared pool of computer networks, servers, applications and data centers.

“The president asked us to find the best ideas and the best thinking across the world,” Kundra said. “I’m proud to say the Ames Research Center and NASA are leading the way in providing some of those solutions.” NASA Ames’ cloud computing pilot program, Nebula, is designed to offer common services while also addressing the space agency’s unique requirements.

“We typically work with very large data sets,” said Chris Kemp, Ames’ chief information officer. While businesses often handle data sets measured in gigabytes, NASA research efforts often generate 10,000 or 100,000 times that amount of information, Kemp said Aug. 11 in a speech on federal cloud computing initiatives. A recent initiative to make publicly available high-resolution images of the Moon and Mars on Microsoft Corp.’s WorldWide Telescope, for example, requires NASA to process more than 100 terabytes of data, enough to fill 20,000 DVDs, Kemp said.

By centralizing data storage and processing, Nebula is helping to reduce the environmental impact of computing, Kundra said. “Nebula allows the government to be able to leverage some of the most innovative technologies … with limited environmental impact,” he said. The resources Nebula offers customers “would normally take an entire city block to provide in terms of computing power.”

What is more, Nebula demonstrates that cloud computing can be accomplished in a secure manner, Kundra said. “When we talk about cloud computing, there will be sets of solutions we can implement where information and data is not sensitive. So we can leverage a number of consumer platforms. For classified data, those solutions must be government owned and operated. NASA is leading the way in providing some of those solutions.”

Still, the process of moving federal agencies toward cloud computing may take a decade because of the many issues that will have to be addressed along the way including questions of security, privacy, information management and procurement policy.

“We recognize as we embark on this journey toward cloud computing that this is not going to happen overnight,” Kundra said. “Over time, as we work through these concerns and offer more services through Apps.gov, federal agencies will be able to get the capabilities they need to fulfill their missions at lower cost, faster, and ultimately, in a more sustainable manner.”