NASA CTO says help desks will soon be thing of past

Like the 30 spacecraft his agency has launched, Tom Soderstrom, CTO at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), sees everything through the clouds.

NASA’s JPL uses 10 public or private clouds to store everything from photos of Mars for public purview to top-secret data.

Pretty soon, Soderstrom told attendees of Computerworld’s SNW conference here today, data stored by large enterprises like NASA will be measured in Exabytes; one Exabyte is equal to 1.5 billion CDs or a million terabytes.

And, he noted, the only place to store Exabytes of data is on public and private clouds.

The good news is that with data in the cloud, people will be able to “work with anyone, from anywhere, with any data, using any device at any time,” he said.

And the not-so-bad news is that IT help desks, as we know them, will become a thing of the past, and IT workers in general will have to rethink how they approach application development and security.

“Now the workforce and consumers of IT are becoming mobile. Have you ever called a help desk for your mobile device? What do you do? Probably, the first you do is Google or Bing it. If you can’t get the answer there, you ask your kids. If you can’t get your answer there, you ask your friends who are like you. For us, that’s the workgroup,” Soderstrom said.

In an interview with Computerworld after a keynote speech before a packed house, Soderstrom said a help desk isn’t worth the money required for a 24/7 operation when employees insist on using their own personal iPhones, Androids, and tablets.

“It’s impossible. You can either blow up the help desk or [forbid] new devices and the end users will be unhappy,” he said.

Therefore, help desks will have to shift to helping employees innovate by providing, for example, expert advice on how to write mobile apps that can help the business. “That’s where we think the help desk is going, from a commodity to an expert,” Soderstrom said.

Soderstrom said that when a scientist recently asked him for an iPad, he was told he could get one only if he could develop an application that could help the business. The scientist went on to create NASA’s Lunar Mapping and Modeling Project (LMMP), which shared all of JPL’s data about the moon on the web.

The scientist earned a free iPad, Soderstrom said.

Today, JPL’s 5,000 employees are allowed to use any mobile device or tablet they want, as long as the agency has first secured it with a VPN.

Soderstrom sees a remarkable opportunity for mobile applications, the cloud, and “big data” analytics/business intelligence tools that can cull through massive data stores for statistically relevant information.

Today’s statistical analysts will be tomorrow’s most valuable assets, he said.

Over the past three years, NASA has been putting more and more data onto cloud infrastructures, both internal and with service providers.

When the NASA cloud effort was launched, agency IT managers were concerned about potential vendor lock-in, and whether data could be moved to data centers of other vendors. So NASA chose to use products from multiple vendors, including Amazon’s S3, Google’s Cloud Service and Microsoft’s Azure.

NASA set up a cloud application suitability model (CASM), which determines what application goes to which cloud.

The agency also set up a so-called “The Wheel of Security,” described as similar to a pie chart that shows which data can be publicly available and which should remain top secret.

In public clouds, parts of which are accessible to the public, NASA placed high-resolution images of Mars and wrote games around them to have the public participate as “citizen scientists,” he said.

For example, NASA created a Microsoft’s Azure-based site called Be A Martian , where anyone can view the planet from a rover’s point of view. On Google’s Cloud Service, NASA set up a site for fourth and fifth graders to explore the galaxy.

And with Amazon’s S3 cloud, NASA set up a crowdsourcing website that offers contests for developers to write code to help drive Mars rovers.

“We stored and ran everything in Amazon’s public cloud so now we have tons of code we can use,” he said.

NASA also uses clouds for high performance computing and for a virtual desktop infrastructure pilot program.

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin built a private cloud for the agency in its data center. The private cloud uses technology from CSC’s Terremark cloud, RackSpace, Univa as well as Amazon’s virtual private cloud.

The process for ensuring security was turned on its head in the cloud project, Soderstrom said.

In the past, the NASA security team was brought in at the end of a project. “IT security was always saying no to me,” he said. “I’d say, ‘What are you talking about? ‘Not secure’ is meaningless. What do you mean?'”

In the cloud project, Soderstrom said his team rewrote the security process to bring the experts in at the beginning. And he said, he set one major rule for the security team; they could not say, “No Tom, that’s a stupid idea. You can’t do it,” he said.

“They can say, ‘OK, Tom. I hear what you’re trying to do. How about this way in order to secure it?’,” he said. “So instead of the buck stops here, the buck starts here with security.”

Changing the way NASA approached security took three years of slow culture change, but it was worth it, Soderstrom said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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