NASA’s CTO: Open source software keeps us honest

It’s not every day that NASA creates a position just for you.

NASA did just that for Chris C. Kemp in 2010. The tech pioneer became the space agency’s first Chief Technology Officer for Information Technology, appointed to lead and nurture IT innovation at the U.S. space agency.

Chris Kemp-use
NASA created a CTO role for Chris C. Kemp to lead.

Kemp focused on cloud computing, open-source software and open government, and prior to becoming CTO for IT, partnered with Google and Microsoft to help create Google Moon, Google Mars, and Microsoft World Wide Telescope. He also led the development of OpenStack, an open-source cloud project, with the goal of enabling any organization to create and offer cloud computing services running on standard hardware.

Kemp went on to found Nebula, which makes cloud computing hardware appliances, and now serves as the company’s chief strategy officer.

He is one of several tech thinkers who will speak at Interzone, a Canadian Cloud Council event in Banff, Alberta, next year. He’ll partake in a fireside chat titled, “From Old To New Order Technology At Breakneck Speed.”

I recently spoke on the phone with Kemp about cloud computing, open-source software, open governments and gadgets.

Q: Why is open-source software so important?

A: “Open source software is the best way to level the playing field against very entrenched companies when they stop innovating. Entrenched companies build a proprietary ecosystem around their technology, which both creates lock-in and further stymies innovation around the periphery of their product. Small innovators are often acquired as they become competitive.

In this way, entrenched companies are like black holes … when innovators get too close, they get sucked in, and at some point there’s just so much critical mass around the old way of doing something that a radical shift in how you approach something isn’t possible anymore, because it threatens too many interests and there is too much change.

By contrast, a new open source project is like a new star being born. Like stardust in a nebula, software engineers begin to coalesce around the opportunity to solve some really big problem, and new way of doing something, and that is very powerful.”

Q: What kind of role can democracy and open government play in the cloud?

A: “That’s a big question. When I served at NASA, I believed strongly that all software developed at the expense of taxpayers should be open-sourced. Why should taxpayers pay to develop the same code time and time again? I think that especially in cloud technologies, this will become increasingly important as we seek to achieve interoperability and portability between public and private cloud infrastructures.

OpenStack is a great example of this. At NASA, we worked hard to open source Nova, the first project in OpenStack, under that Apache license framework, which is widely regarded as the most flexible open source framework. We did this to ensure that we did not exclude companies from participating in the community, and I believe that this turned out to be a key ingredient to the success of OpenStack. Today there are dozens of public and private cloud products and services built using OpenStack.

Consuming open source technology is also great for governments, as code can be directly inspected. As we start to see more open-source software and hardware, it allows both citizens and governments alike to verify the integrity of the technology. The Nebula One is only sold in North America right now, but we’re having conversations with folks in other countries and one of the compelling things about our product is that it’s based on open-source technologies that can be inspected.

So you can kind of think of our Nebula One “black box” as a “glass box” – like a fine “Swiss OpenStack watch.” You can make use of it and marvel at its complexity but you don’t have to worry about how to build it or make it work.”

Q: Where will the cloud go next?

A: “Big internet companies have invested billions of dollars building large cloud computing infrastructures. Renting computing services to millions of small companies that are comfortable running their software and storing their data in a shared environment has become a very profitable business.

OpenStack and companies like Nebula are making it possible for large enterprises to offer the same elastic computing model to folks building the next generation of biotech, film, finance, big data and mobile software. Nebula installs OpenStack and Amazon Web Services compatible “private clouds” systems in just a few hours, often for less money than the monthly bill the company is paying to Amazon Web Services.

There was a 10-year period of time where everybody looked at Google and Amazon and said, “Wow, these guys have built incredible factory scale computing infrastructure. There’s no way we’ll be able to do that!” I think over the next five years, companies like Nebula and technologies like OpenStack are going to democratize this approach to computing and we’ll ultimately see public and private computing infrastructure working together in harmony to deliver the next generation of application experiences.

Q: What’s your favourite gadget?

A: My iPhone; however, it’s getting some competition from my new Android tablet lately. I once said a few years ago that “tablets will be the gateway to the cloud,” and I continue to believe this more than ever. Watching applications and user interfaces emerge on phones and tablets reminds me of the early days of computers.

There is a lot of innovation taking place right now being catalyzed by new form factors, sensors, and perhaps most importantly – the combination of the cloud and always-on wireless internet connectivity. I predict gadgets are about to get a lot more interesting in the years ahead.”

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Shawn Freeman
Shawn Freeman
I’m Shawn Freeman, an entrepreneur, personable geek and founder of IT services company TWT Group. I’ve worked on big and small tech projects, and have never let the corporate ladder dictate my path to doing what I love. I’m passionate about cloud computing and data security, and like to share my ideas in and on the TWT blog. IT should be the easiest part of your day. I’m passionate about exceptional IT services and being better, faster and more affordable than the big guys. TWT Group works with partners in oil and gas, accounting, agriculture and more across western Canada. Want to hear more? Email me at [email protected].

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