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Why NASA Mars Lab Turns to Cloud Computing

The NASA team behind the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers--the Jet Propulsion Laboratory--has announced a move to cloud computing.

What's wonderful is that the lab's reasons behind the move are exactly the same as those of any other organization: It needs the capability to add and remove computing capacity when required, without the expense and time incurred in setting up servers or data centers.

We might consider NASA to have the kind of money to knock together data centers in hours, but money is not as free and easy as in the space agency's old days--and the fact is that cloud computing capacity is so insanely cheap that it's irresistible, even for government.

Artist's concept of a NASA Mars Exploration Rover exploring Mars
Artist's concept of a NASA Mars Exploration Rover exploring Mars
Also driving the move is that the original three-month mission has stretched to six successful years, generating a lot more data than was originally envisioned. Again, the essentially limitless storage of the cloud is an obvious solution. Having the data ultra-accessible also helps NASA's worldwide researchers.

"This is a change to thinking about computer capacity and data storage as a commodity like electricity, or even the money in your bank account," said John Callas, rover project manager for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

There's a man who gets what it's all about.

The NASA lab has chosen for its cloud partner none other than Amazon, which kick-started the cloud computing revolution in 2006 with its Elastic Computing Cloud (EC2) and Simple Storage Service (S3). Although NASA developed its own software for its needs, called Maestro, the lab's interest in Amazon is a reminder of the democratic nature of the cloud, and the purpose of the cloud to be there for everybody who needs it.

For example, EC2 also offers virtual Windows instances running Microsoft Windows Server 2003 or 2008 that can be hired by anybody who wants them. These can be used for everything from Web hosting to SQL databases.

S3 has also saved the life of many a Web developer by offering ultra-low-cost online storage, and Oracle is also officially on its way to EC2, according to an announcement made in September.

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