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NASA Nebula - Obama's own private cloud?

Federal CIO munches Ubuntu's Koala food

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The open-source Amazon-like compute cloud under development at NASA's Ames Research Center could become a means of hosting websites across the US government.

Ames chief information officer Chris Kemp tells The Reg that the engineers building NASA's Nebula infrastructure cloud have been working with the team put together by federal CIO Vivek Kundra to build a new species of federal websites, and that in the "near future," Kundra's group will unveil some sort of built-from-scratch federal portal that runs atop Nebula.

"What I can tell you is that...we have been working with those guys to power other federal websites outside of NASA," Kemp told The Reg Thursday by phone from Washington, DC. "There is a particular site we've been working with Vivek on, and it will be released in the near future...

"Rather than worry about their own infrastructure, they were able to focus just on the website they were building and use Nebula's infrastructure-as-a-service instead. It's one of several pilot projects [involving Nebula]."

Kemp says that the federal government is paying NASA for use of Nebula - which serves up scalable compute resources in much the same way as Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) - and that this will help fund additional work on the project. "If we're able to leverage Nebula to solve problems across the federal government, that helps us develop the platform and save NASA some money."

What will Kundra's mystery website do? "It involves government transparency and sharing data with the public," is all Kemp would say. But we might have guessed that on our own. Kundra is the personification of President Obama's push towards not only greater government transparency through IT but also a federal government that fully embraces open source software.

Nebula is based on Eucalyptus, an open source project meant to mimic Amazon EC2 inside private data centers. Eucalyptus is bundled with the latest version of Ubuntu. That's why Ubuntu chief Mark Shuttleworth calls it Karmic Koala.

Whereas EC2 serves up compute and storage resources to the public at large, Eucalyptus is meant to serve up resources within an organization. The platform is even wrapped in the same APIs as Amazon EC2 (without Amazon's explicit approval).

Speaking with The Reg this week, Woody Rollins and Rich Wolski - co-founders of Eucalyptus Systems, the startup that has commercialized the project - indicated that Nebula would serve as a kind of private EC2 for the federal government.

Kemp still characterizes Nebula as a beta pilot and a NASA project. Work began about 18 months ago, and somewhere along the way it caught the eye of Vivek Kundra. The federal CIO used Ames - located in Silicon Valley, near Mountain View - to announce Apps.gov, a storefront where federal agencies can shop for for online business and productivity apps, IT services, and social networking tools. His press conference included a brief nod to Nebula.

Nebula runs Eucalyptus on the XEN and KVM open source hypervisors and, yes, Linux. Other open source tools then run atop Eucalyptus, including MySQL and RabbitMQ. All this is handled from modular data center containers built in tandem with Cisco. "These are standard shipping containers we can deploy through the agency or the government," Kemp says.

One can only wonder what Amazon thinks, as it continues to push its own cloud as a federal-government saver. ®

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