Down to Earth: Cloud computing

12 December 2017

Interview with

Dr Stuart Higgins - Imperial College London

This week, Dr Stuart Higgins is looking into how NASA tidying up its website ultimately helped to usher in the era of cloud computing…

Stuart - We’re all told to be careful what we post online, but when you’re a large organisation such as NASA, keeping track of what’s on your website is a challenging task. In 2008, when NASA was trying to clean up its web presence, the agency realised they needed more than just a spring clean.

Not only does NASA share images and results from space missions, it also uses a myriad of computer networks to store mission data. Engineers soon realised they needed a better way for people to access the data and computing power on their network.

To do this they developed the software needed to create their own cloud. While, they may sound fluffy and nebulous, clouds are very much real things. They are, in essence, just a large number of computers that are connected together and can share different computing tasks. Racks of computers will often be found in a warehouse, more elegantly called a data centre, located somewhere with a fast internet connection.

When you access a cloud-based website or service, your computer or smartphone is talking via the internet to the computers making up that particular cloud. Take, for example, watching streaming videos on the internet, your smartphone is talking to a computer on that company’s cloud. It will find the right video most likely stored on another computer somewhere else on the same network and send it back to you.

The clever part is that the sharing of jobs between different computers means that if a company suddenly needs more space due to say a surge in people sharing cat videos, they can simply plug in more computers and these machines can quickly add their resources to the bigger cloud.

Rather than just serving up cat videos, the cloud can also run applications just like your computer at home. You let the computers in the cloud do the heavy lifting and get them to send you the results back to your machine. For all that to work, you need software that can coordinate all the different actions of the computers making up the cloud. This is what NASA, together with a firm that runs cloud computer systems developed.

In 2010 a joint consortium launched OpenStack, an open source cloud software platform. Open source means the computer code is free for anyone to use without the need for a licence and it was this feature in particular that prompted the widespread uptake of cloud computing. Before this, it was still a relatively new concept with only a few commercial players in the market. Today, companies such as car manufacturers, supermarkets, and financial services firms use the OpenStack platform to power their own clouds.

So that’s how, what started off as trying to make it easier to share the results from space missions helped to promote the widespread adoption of cloud computing.

 

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