Moving technology services to the cloud has become commonplace over the last few years. But as government agencies weigh the pros and cons of various big-name cloud providers, another option has begun to surface — open source cloud computing.

One such platform is OpenStack, created by NASA and Rackspace Hosting, a data storage solution provider. Launched in July 2010, OpenStack has grown to become a global collaboration of developers and cloud computing technologists producing ubiquitous code for public and private clouds.

Now featuring almost 4,000 people and more than 178 companies, the community’s goal is to develop a cloud standard and scalable cloud operating system that any organization can use to offer services on typical computing hardware. The technology is composed of various projects that become the components that make up a cloud infrastructure.

According to Jim Curry, general manager of Rackspace Cloud Builders, the need for open source cloud technology was spurred by stagnation in the cloud provider market a few years ago. Prior to OpenStack, there was concern in the industry that the market for cloud platforms was moving too slowly, Curry said, in-part because providers such as Amazon and Rackspace were building their own proprietary systems.

The problem was that by choosing to go with one specific provider, a customer could theoretically get locked into a cloud model and would be unable to easily switch off if a need to transition arose. But if a customer’s cloud was instead based on an open source cloud platform, that situation might not be as big of an issue, and may even spur growth in the cloud market.

“The answer became obvious — let’s pursue an open development path,” Curry said. “As a company, it allowed us to get the world working on our problems together; it allowed people to come in with common issues they were trying to resolve and try to build a common cloud platform.”

Rackspace had made some progress on the storage end of cloud technology but lacked development on the computing side of an open source cloud platform. That’s where NASA came in. The federal agency was having the same concerns and issues as Rackspace about how to use and develop cloud most efficiently.

At the time, NASA was in the midst of constructing its own proprietary cloud system called “Nebula.” NASA had been working on the system since 2008 and had made strides with the compute portion of the technology, which they dubbed “Nova,” but lacked advancement on cloud storage capacity. So the union between Rackspace and NASA was a natural marriage of technology that spawned OpenStack.

Ray O’Brien, former project manager of Nebula and current acting CIO of NASA’s Ames Research Center, said it took about a month of cutting through red tape and obtaining the proper clearances to get the partnership off the ground. NASA and Rackspace first met in mid-June 2010 and federal government approval was granted in the weeks following, ushering in a new era of sorts in the way NASA works with the outside community.

O’Brien said the story is a great public-private partnership case study. NASA projects usually involve a contract or grant agreement. But that structure doesn’t apply well to an open source endeavor, so O’Brien’s team had to get a waiver from standard policy to make the collaboration a reality.

Getting that approval wasn’t easy, however. NASA had used open source products in its projects before and also developed its own open source technologies and released them to the public in the past. But the agency didn’t have a policy that governed how to partake in community development that was predicated on working hand-in-hand with people virtually over networks from a variety of different companies.

“That was new and that was a challenge to get that waiver,” O’Brien admitted. “There’s a group here at NASA that wants to use the success that came out of OpenStack to push for policy revision that will allow this to happen on a broader scale within NASA.”

The benefits of open source cloud computing center on flexibility, particularly for state and local government agencies already vested or looking to move into a cloud infrastructure.

Curry said there are two things state and local officials should know about open source cloud computing. First, it’s an emerging standard that will be included in the various vendor-created cloud platforms. Second, in the future, he believes government IT personnel will be able to implement their own cloud platforms instead of relying on vendors and potentially high licensing costs.

Brian Heaton  | 

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.