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Nasa Jet Labs bets big on cloud computing

29 Nov 2012
NASA's Mars rover

LAS VEGAS: Administrators with Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) are looking to cloud computing platforms to power the administration's next generation of projects.

Speaking at the 2012 re:Invent conference, Nasa IT CTO Tom Soderstrom and software engineer Khawaja Shams said that the JPL staff are using cloud platforms to power, among other things, the Mars Curiosity rover mission.

The rover, which has already made a number of historical discoveries on the red planet, uses a number of computing and storage platforms from Amazon in order to communicate with the rover and process data gathered in the mission.

The pair said that the rover project is part of a larger effort by the JPL staff to move its operations to cloud compute services. The effort was born in 2008 when administrators, weary of budget shortfalls, ordered IT staff not to purchase any more physical servers.

As the agency began to adopt cloud platforms, developers began introducing low-risk platforms such as public-facing web applications, into the cloud. Eventually, JPL found that the cloud systems would be able to handle mission critical and secure applications.

"Very soon we realised you can do secure computing in the cloud," Shams said.

"We realised we could get a strategic advantage and mitigate the risks."

In the coming years, JPL plans to expand its cloud efforts even further. The company outlined a number of projects, including storing and images through cloud platforms and offering applications to scientists as virtualised instances rather than requiring the download and compilation of source code.

Ultimately, the JPL believes that it can deliver its IT infrastructure to scientists and laboratory facilities on demand. Soderstrom likened the migration to the spread of electricity, allowing firms to simply plug in to computing platforms.

"[Thomas Edison] allowed us to think of electricity as a consumable commodity," Soderstrom explained.

"Cloud computing to us is that same model applied to compute, network and storage needs."

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Shaun Nichols

Shaun Nichols is the US correspondent for He has been with the company since 2006, originally joining as a news intern at the site's San Francisco offices.

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