How NASA Helped Open-Source Cloud Take Off

The government agency famous for Tang and memory foam is also the unlikely (and largely unknown) source of an equally important endeavor. Learn how NASA's long-standing culture of openness, combined with the Obama administration's official open government policies, helped give birth to the open-source cloud.

By Jason Bloomberg
Thu, June 28, 2012

CIO — Tang, memory foam and cordless vacuums: The common thread, of course, is NASA. While the National Aeronautics and Space Administration didn't actually develop Tang, the U.S. government's space arm has been responsible for a steady stream of innovations that has entered every corner of our daily lives.

The Shuttle fleet may be retired, but NASA's innovation efforts continue unabated, with the agency's latest contribution driving the world of cloud computing. In fact, the story of how—and even more so, why—NASA has taken a leadership role in the cloud is a fascinating example of our tax dollars well spent, and a prime example of the government's new mantra to do more with less.

NASA's Open Government Culture

NASA's role as government-funded innovator dates to its founding. The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 called for NASA's active participation in the scientific community, wide dissemination of information regarding its activities and the encouragement of commercial use of space.

NASA logo

This mandate led to what the agency calls the NASA Open Government Plan, which takes the spirit of NASA's charter and strives to embody transparency, participation and collaboration across all activities. The agency has endeavored to take a multi-dimensional approach that addresses technology, policy and culture, thereby extending the Open Government Plan well past the space-centric scientific world that drove NASAs original mission.

When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, his pledge to work toward "an unprecedented level of openness in government" aligned perfectly with NASA's existing Open Government Plan. In fact, the Obama administration's open government efforts have emphasized the same three priorities that have guided NASA all along—transparency, participation and collaboration.

As a result, when the administration issued its directive to all government agencies to harness new technologies to make information about agency decisions readily available to the public, NASA was ready to hit the ground running. NASA had already been developing NASA.net, a unified technology platform for use across all of NASA's Web projects.

NASA.net took a service-oriented approach to abstracting IT resources and associated middleware, offering common Web development tools and bringing NASA's numerous Web-centric initiatives onto a common, reusable platform. The goal was to create a "convergence effect" that would lead to improved efficiency and greater visibility across the agency.

It soon became clear, however, that building such a platform layer required a flexible infrastructure underneath, which required a shift in priorities for NASA.net. To this end, NASA developers set out to create a set of generic, on-demand, API-driven compute and storage systems—in other words, Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS).

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