Tuesday, August 4, 2009

NASA’s Cloud Platform: NEBULA, and Amorphous Morphology

NEBULA is a Cloud Computing environment developed at NASA Ames Research Center, integrating a set of open-source components into a seamless, self-service platform. It provides high-capacity computing, storage and network connectivity, and uses a virtualized, scalable approach to achieve cost and energy efficiencies.

They always write it in all caps, though it doesn’t appear to be an acronym. My guess is that it’s easier to search for “NEBULA” and find what you want at NASA. And, what better name for a cloud computing platform?

To be frank, I didn’t recognize any of the technologies other than RabbitMQ and Apache. So I set out to find out what each piece does, and it’s these times that really make me envious of the LAMP folks. There is so much going on in the OSS world!

In fact, it’s that sheer volume of innovation that makes it such a nightmare. Here’s where having NASA or Amazon or Elastra or EngineYard or Rackspace or Google AppEngine discuss their respective cloud infrastructures is so beneficial. If you look at their technology choices as a Venn diagram, you might find an optimal set of technologies in the overlap. Beyond that, you can begin to form a generalized blueprint of a cloud platform, identifying the core components.

cloud provider Venn diagram

In this way the cloud begins to take shape. Were we to sit all the big industry players down and say, define the cloud al a the OSI model, no one would have gotten around to building one. If we find the clouds in the wild, we can dissect them and find out what makes them tick. We can reverse engineer our blueprint.

There’s a few major players missing here, of course, most notably Salesforce.com (SFDC) and Microsoft’s Azure platform.  SFDC doesn’t have an infrastructure that you can replicate, per se, because it is inseparable from their proprietary technologies.  In fact, Stu Charlton and others have noted that this is their biggest failing.  Similarly, Microsoft’s Azure is also a monolithic platform play, with the major difference that the platform can be deployed on premises, a so-called private cloud.

Still though, we can include SFDC and Azure in our analysis.  We can develop our morphology of the cloud platforms that have published their constituent technologies.  With the language of this morphology in hand, we can classify the facilities of other cloud platforms.  Perhaps a taxonomy will evolve that allows us to identify Platform-as-a-Service, Infrastructure-as-a-Service, Software-as-a-Service, hybrids, and perhaps some novel species.

Despite the amorphous character implied by the term cloud computing, these platforms have well-defined structure.  Moreover, unlike the traditional use of clouds in architecture diagrams, the details of this structure are important.

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