Nebula Cloud Project-in-a-Box by NASA Ames

I am always on the watch for interesting stories about green IT, cloud computing, and smart grid. When someone pitched me a story about the container-based data center (CDC), I did not pay much attention because, at the time, CDC was dismissed as only for large companies like Microsoft and Google. But when I heard from multiple sources that CDC was rebounding, my antennae went up and I started asking data center experts about it. I’ve written about it before. The majority of people were negative on CDC’s imminent resurgence, dismissing its general applicability.

Two people had different opinions. One was Mark Thiele, who was director at VMware, but who is now involved in so much that I am not sure how to describe him. He told me that it might take a few years, but the surge of cloud computing would make CDC a practical solution. I was still a bit skeptical about it. I then talked to Alex Fielding of Power Assure, who showed me his research on CDC. He introduced me a few months ago to a person involved in NASA’s Nebula project. Between that person’s busy schedule and my trips, I did not succeed until recently in making an appointment with him.

I finally had a chance to visit NASA Ames, where long ago, I tried to take its research prototype to the commercial market. From 2000 to 2002, I was on the Ames campus (not in the secure area) with my partner. With a contractor badge, I could enter the secure zone as well. It was nice to be able to step back onto the campus. For those who do not know the security arrangement there, you need a sponsor (a NASA Ames employee) to enter the secure zone. Since it was early, I drove around the building where we used to have an office.

 This is a picnic area just behind our building where my partner and I discussed how to deal with NASA

In any event, I met this person, who did not want to be identified or quoted but was willing to show me the Nebula box. Here’s a picture of it, which has been published many times and in many places in the past.

Nebula container

Since I promised not to identify or quote him, I am simply writing my comments here. By now it is not new to see a CDC. The container is a standard 40 feet, but the differences are in the contents. As Dean Nelson of Data Center Pulse told me, a CDC is just a big rack, and there are many ways you can design the inside. The servers can be mounted front-to-back or sideways. Cooling can come from the ceiling or from the floor. (Even though cooling was working inside the container, outside it was very windy and cold. Airside economizer could be kicked in, although I do not know if it had such a feature.) Unless you know these things, you cannot evaluate a CDC well.

We were standing outside the building where the Nebula box was placed. Around the building, there was a lot of space. Since it is a container, it can be lifted easily and placed on a truck for transportation. When you need more computing power, you can add containers with relative ease. When you no longer need a CDC, the container can be removed and taken to where computing power is required. So, in a sense, a CDC is greener than a data center housed in a real building.

 The Nebula project’s objective is to provide a cloud computing environment for NASA and beyond.

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I poked around the Nebula website and found out many things. Some time ago, the U.S. government’s new CIO said something about cloud computing being superior to data centers. Several people criticized him for not being technically savvy, since cloud computing is housed in data centers. After reading several pages on the website, I think I now know what he really meant. Before, when one branch of the federal government needed to extend its computing power supply, it would build a new data center without sharing with other branches. A data center is expensive to build and maintain. It could run several hundred millions of dollars to construct and run. With the advent of cloud computing, branches can share computing power.

Also very strange was the website’s emphasis on speed-to-implement. When we dealt with NASA eight years ago, we could not find "speed” and "NASA” in the same sentence. Obviously, a change in management did the trick. A small box alone could provide a large amount of computing power to NASA Ames and beyond. It is good to know our taxes are at work without being wasted.

Zen Kishimoto

About Zen Kishimoto

Seasoned research and technology executive with various functional expertise, including roles in analyst, writer, CTO, VP Engineering, general management, sales, and marketing in diverse high-tech and cleantech industry segments, including software, mobile embedded systems, Web technologies, and networking. Current focus and expertise are in the area of the IT application to energy, such as smart grid, green IT, building/data center energy efficiency, and cloud computing.
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