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Ex-NASA CTO on cloud computing, zero-gravity and Glass-like tech in 2006

No offense to the others — they’ve been great — but this week’s Structure Show podcast might be favorite one yet. Barb Darrow and I spoke with computer wunderkind Chris Kemp, who’s currently co-founder and CEO of cloud computing startup Nebula, about his time as CIO and CTO at NASA, and the crazy things he saw and did there. Oh, and he has some thoughts on OpenStack — which his team at NASA helped create — as well.

Here are some highlights. But if you’re into cloud computing or even space exploration, you really should listen to the whole thing. Seriously.

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On the complexity of walking into NASA, as a twenty-something, having worked primarily with normal IT systems: “Literally every technology that has ever been sold has been bought by NASA, and NASA has invented a lot of technology that has never been sold. So it’s really difficult to communicate just how diverse and federated and interesting the infrastructure is at NASA.”

On the one hand, Kemp noted, there were massive high-performance computing systems. On the other, well, “I was seeing technology like Google Glass back in 2006. … It’s a very interesting place.”

Kemp’s work was diverse, too, depending on the mission. He once had to tune Nebula, the OpenStack precursor his team created, to support galaxy-discovery software designed to clarify blurry images from the Hubble telescope. “We can actually say we helped discover thousands of galaxies with what we were doing,” Kemp said.

Structure 2012: Marten Mickos - CEO, Eucalyptus Systems, Chris C. Kemp - CEO, Nebula and Co-Founder, OpenStack, Sameer Dholakia - Group VP and GM, Cloud Platforms Group, Citrix, Jo Maitland - Research Director, GigaOM Pro
Kemp (center, with glasses) at Structure 2012. (c) 2012 Pinar Ozger [email protected]

On trying to build web-like infrastructure, modeled after Amazon Web Services, and creating OpenStack: “My team wasn’t able to make [Eucalyptus] work the way they wanted it to work, so we ended up pulling a whole initiative together to replace Eucalyptus with our own code, and that was called Nova. And when we open sourced it, the rest was history.”

Added Kemp, on the commercialization of OpenStack: “[There’s] no reason for me not to be excited about a bunch of companies contributing to my taxpayer-funded project, so I was a big supporter of that.”

On who’ll win in OpenStack: “I think a lot of companies when they got into this said they wanted to be the Red Hat of OpenStack, and then Red Hat came in and is kind of the Red Hat of OpenStack.”

Kemp thinks there will be a few winners selling OpenStack software, and that there will be consolidation in the next couple years as large vendors buy up talent and technology. Kemp isn’t sold that newish OpenStack member/adopter VMware will be one of those winners, but he’s excited to see how the company utilizes the technology.

“There’s a lot of technology that they built that, frankly, has no place in a cloud that’s powering cloud-native applications,” he said. “And they’re going to have to reconcile that.”

On Nebula, the OpenStack-appliance company that he co-founded in 2011: “We’re like Amazon in that all our customers have exactly the same thing. The innovation is going to be a lot faster for the Nebula platform, but what we’re not able to do, like the software guys, is customize it and tailor it to the needs of every customer.”

But do users want to buy special hardware when they’re using open source software? Kemp thinks so, if only because Nebula only sells a controller that works sits on top of any rack — full of any servers — that a customer wants to turn into a cloud. “We are the least locked-in hardware company in history,” he said.


Finally … on the experience of flights in a modified Boeing 727 that nosedives to simulate zero-gravity before pulling up hard: “[I]f you could muster the strength to look out the window as it’s being pulled up … you’d see the wings bending up to the point where you think they might snap. … As a frequent air traveler, almost crashing 20 times in a row in a 727 makes me feel really good about the way those things are built.”

(And if cloud computing and space are your things, and you’ll happen to be in the London area Sept. 18 and 19, swing by our Structure: Europe conference and see European Space Agency senior adviser Maryline Lengert talk about that agency’s cloud platform.)

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