Web Solutions Inspire Cloud Computing Software

NASA Technology

In 2008, a NASA effort to standardize its websites inspired a breakthrough in cloud computing technology. The innovation has spurred the growth of an entire industry in open source cloud services that has already attracted millions in investment and is currently generating hundreds of millions in revenue.

William Eshagh was part of the project in the early days, when it was known as NASA.net. “The feeling was that there was a proliferation of NASA websites and approaches to building them. Everything looked different, and it was all managed differently—it was a fragmented landscape.”

altNASA.net aimed to resolve this problem by providing a standard set of tools and methods for web developers. The developers, in turn, would provide design, code, and functionality for their project while adopting and incorporating NASA’s standardized approach. Says Eshagh, “The basic idea was that the web developer would write their code and upload it to the website, and the website would take care of everything else.”

altEven though the project was relatively narrow in its focus, the developers soon realized that they would need bigger, more foundational tools to accomplish the job. “We were trying to create a ‘platform layer,’ which is the concept of giving your code over to the service. But in order to build that, we actually needed to go a step deeper,” says Eshagh.

That next step was to create an “infrastructure service.” Whereas NASA.net was a platform for dealing with one type of application, an infrastructure service is a more general tool with a simpler purpose: to provide access to computing power. While such computing power could be used to run a service like NASA.net, it could also be used for other applications.

Put another way, what the team came to realize was that they needed to create a cloud computing service. Cloud computing is the delivery of software, processing power, and storage over the Internet. Whether these resources are as ordinary as a library of music files or as complex as a network of supercomputers, cloud computing enables an end user to control them remotely and simply. “The idea is to be able to log on to the service and say ‘I want 10 computers,’ and within a minute, I can start using those computers for any purpose whatsoever,” says Eshagh.

As the scope of the project expanded, NASA.net came to be known as Nebula. Much more than setting standards for Agency web developers, Nebula was intended to provide NASA developers, researchers, and scientists with a wide range of services for accessing and managing the large quantities of data the Agency accumulates every day. This was an enormous undertaking that only a high-powered cloud computing platform could provide.

Raymond O’Brien, former program manager of Nebula, says the project was in some ways ahead of its time. “Back in 2008 and 2009, people were still trying to figure out what ‘cloud’ meant. While lots of people were calling themselves ‘cloud enabled’ or ‘cloud ready,’ there were few real commercial offerings. With so little clarity on the issue, there was an opportunity for us to help fill that vacuum.”


altAs the team built Nebula, one of the most pressing questions they faced was that of open source development, or the practice of building software in full view of the public over the Internet.

On the one hand, proprietary code might have helped the project overcome early hurdles, as commercial software can offer off-the-shelf solutions that speed up development by solving common problems. Proprietary software is sometimes so useful and convenient that the Nebula team wasn’t even sure that they could create the product without relying on closed source solutions at some point.

On the other hand, open source development would facilitate a collaborative environment without borders—literally anyone with the know-how and interest could access the code and improve on it. Because Nebula had evolved into a project that was addressing very general, widespread needs—not just NASA-wide, but potentially worldwide—the possibility of avoiding restrictive licensing agreements by going open source was very attractive.

O’Brien says that broad appeal was an important part of Nebula’s identity. “From the beginning, we wanted this project to involve a very large community—private enterprises, academic institutions, research labs—that would take Nebula and bring it to the next level. It was a dream, a vision. It was that way from the start.”

Despite uncertainties, the development team decided to make Nebula purely open source. Eshagh says the real test for that philosophy came when those constraints were stretched to their limits. “Eventually, we determined that existing open source tools did not fully address Nebula’s requirements,” he says. “But instead of turning to proprietary tools, we decided to write our own.”

The problem was with a component of the software called the cloud controller, or the tool that can turn a single server or pool of servers into many virtual servers, which can then be provisioned remotely using software. In effect, the controller gives an end user access in principle to as much or as little computing power and storage as is needed. Existing tools were either written in the wrong programming language or under the wrong software license.

Within a matter of days, the Nebula team had built a new cloud controller from scratch, in Python (their preferred programming language for the controller), and under an open source license. When the team announced this breakthrough on its blog, they immediately began attracting attention from some of the biggest players in the industry. “We believed we were addressing a general problem that would have broad interest,” says Eshagh. “As it turns out, that prediction couldn’t have been more accurate.”

Technology Transfer

Rackspace Inc., of San Antonio, Texas, was one of the companies most interested in the technology. Rackspace runs the second largest public cloud in the world and was at the time offering computing and storage services using software they had created in-house. Jim Curry, general manager of Rackspace Cloud Builders, says they faced hurdles similar to those NASA faced in building a private cloud. “We tried to use available technology,” he says, “but it couldn’t scale up to meet our needs.”

The engineers at Rackspace wrote their own code for a number of years, but Curry says they didn’t see it as a sustainable activity. “We’re a hosting company—people come to us when they want to run standard server environments with a high level of hosting support that we can offer them. Writing proprietary code for unique technologies is not something we wanted to be doing long-term.”

The developers at Rackspace were fans of open source development and had been looking into open source solutions right at the time the Nebula team announced its new cloud controller. “Just weeks before we were going to announce our own open source project, we saw that what NASA had released looked very similar to what we were trying to do.” Curry reached out to the Nebula team, and within a week the two development teams met and agreed that it made sense to collaborate on the project going forward.

Each of the teams brought something to the table, says Curry. “The nice thing about it was that we were more advanced than NASA in some areas and vice versa, and we each complemented the other very well. For example, NASA was further along with their cloud controller, whereas we were further along on the storage side of things.”

The next step was for each organization to make its code open source so the two teams could launch the project as an independent, open entity. Jim Curry says the team at Rackspace was stunned by the speed at which NASA moved through the process. “Within a period of 30–45 days, NASA completed the process of getting the agreements to have this stuff done. From my perspective, they moved as fast as any company I’ve ever worked with, and it was really impressive to watch.”

The OpenStack project, the successor to Nebula with development from Rackspace, was announced in July 2010. As open source software, OpenStack has attracted a very broad community: nearly 2,500 independent developers and 150 companies are a part of it—including such giants as AT&T, HP, Cisco, Dell, and Intel. Semi-annual developers’ conferences, where members of the development community meet to exchange ideas and explore new directions for the software, now attract over 1,000 participants from about two dozen different countries.

Benefits

Because OpenStack is free, companies who use it to deploy servers do not need to pay licensing fees—fees that can easily total thousands of dollars per server per year. With the number of companies that have already adopted OpenStack, the software has potentially saved millions of dollars in server costs.

“Before OpenStack,” says Curry, “your only option was to pay someone money to solve the problem that OpenStack is addressing today. For people who want it as a solution, who like the idea of consuming open source, they now have an alternative to proprietary options.”

Not only is OpenStack saving money; it is also generating jobs and revenue at a remarkable pace. Curry says that dozens of Rackspace’s 80 cloud engineering jobs are directly attributable to OpenStack, and that the technology has created hundreds of jobs throughout the industry. “Right now, trying to find someone with OpenStack experience, especially in San Francisco, is nearly impossible, because demand is so high.”

The technology is currently generating hundreds of millions in revenue: Rackspace’s public cloud alone— which largely relies on OpenStack—currently takes in $150 million a year. Curry, Eshagh, and O’Brien all predict that the software will be its own billion-dollar industry within a few years.

Because OpenStack is open source, and is modified and improved by the people who use it, it is more likely to remain a cutting-edge solution for cloud computing needs. Says Eshagh, “We are starting to see the heavyweights in the industry adding services on top of OpenStack—which they can do because they have a common framework to build from. That means we’ll see even more services and products being created.”

In 2012, Rackspace took steps to secure OpenStack’s future as a free and open source project: the company began the process of spinning off the platform into its own nonprofit organization. By separating itself from any one commercial interest, Curry says, the project will be better positioned to continue doing what its founders hoped it would.

O’Brien maintains that OpenStack’s potential is far from being realized. “It’s hard to characterize in advance. If you had asked an expert about Linux years ago, who could have predicted that it would be in nearly everything, as it is today? It’s in phones and mobile devices. It’s in 75 percent of deployed servers. It’s even used to support space missions. OpenStack has a chance to hit something similar to that in cloud computing.”

Curry agrees: “In the future, you can envision almost all computing being done in the cloud, much of which could be powered by OpenStack. I think that NASA will need to receive significant credit for that in the history books. What we’ve been able to do is unbelievable— especially when you remember that it all started in a NASA lab.”

[Source]

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Winglets Save Billions of Dollars in Fuel Costs

Aside

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

KC-135 aircraft
During the 1970s, the focus at Dryden Flight Research Center shifted from high-speed and high-altitude flight to incremental improvements in technology and aircraft efficiency. One manifestation of this trend occurred in the winglet flight research carried out on this KC-135 during 1979 and 1980.

Anyone who has made a paper airplane knows that folding the wingtips upward makes your plane look better and fly farther, though the reasons for the latter might be a mystery. The next time you snag a window seat on an airline flight, check out the plane’s wing. There is a good chance the tip of the wing will be angled upward, almost perpendicular. Or it might bend smoothly up like the tip of an eagle’s wing in flight. Though obviously more complex, these wing modifications have the same aerodynamic function as the folded wingtips of a paper airplane. More than an aesthetically pleasing design feature, they are among aviation’s most visible fuel-saving, performance-enhancing technologies.

Aerodynamics centers on two major forces: lift and drag. Lift is the force that enables a plane to fly. It is generated by unequal pressure on a wing as air flows around it—positive pressure underneath the wing and negative pressure above. Drag is the resistance encountered while moving through the airflow. A significant source of drag is actually derived from the high pressure under the wing, which causes air to flow up over the wingtip and spin off in a vortex. These vortices produce what is called induced drag and are powerful enough to disrupt aircraft flying too closely to one another—one reason for the carefully monitored spacing between flights at takeoff and in the air. Induced drag hampers aircraft performance, cutting into fuel mileage, range, and speed.

In 1897, British engineer Frederick W. Lanchester conceptualized wing end-plates to reduce the impact of wingtip vortices, but modern commercial technology for this purpose traces its roots to pioneering NASA research in the 1970s. At the time, NASA’s Aircraft Energy Efficiency (ACEE) program sought ways to conserve energy in aviation in response to the 1973 oil crisis. As part of the ACEE effort, Langley Research Center aeronautical engineer Richard Whitcomb conducted computer and wind tunnel tests to explore his hypothesis that a precisely designed, vertical wingtip device—which Whitcomb called a “winglet”—could weaken wingtip vortices and thus diminish induced drag. Less drag would translate into less fuel burn and better cruise efficiency. The winglet concept provided a better option than simple wing extensions which, while offering similar aerodynamic benefits, would require weight-adding strengthening of the wings and could render a plane too wide for airport gates.

After evaluating a range of winglet designs, Whitcomb published his findings in 1976, predicting that winglets employed on transport-size aircraft could diminish induced drag by approximately 20 percent and improve the overall aircraft lift-drag ratio by 6 to 9 percent.

Whitcomb’s research generated interest in civil and military aviation communities, leading to flight testing that would not only confirm his predictions, but help popularize the winglet technology now found on airplanes around the world.

Partnership

In 1977, NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and The Boeing Company, headquartered in Chicago, initiated a winglet flight test program at Dryden Flight Research Center. Whitcomb’s Langley team provided the design, and Boeing, under contract with NASA, manufactured a pair of 9-foot-high winglets for the KC-135 test aircraft provided by the Air Force.

Whitcomb was validated: The tests demonstrated a 7-percent increase in lift-drag ratio with a 20-percent decrease in induced drag—directly in line with the Langley engineer’s original findings. Furthermore, the winglets had no adverse impact on the airplane’s handling. The Dryden test program results indicated to the entire aviation industry that winglets were a technology well worth its attention.

The 1970s were an important decade for winglet development for smaller jet aircraft, with manufacturers Learjet and Gulfstream testing and applying the technology. Winglets for large airliners began to appear later; in 1989, Boeing introduced its winglet-enhanced 747-400 aircraft, and in 1990 the winglet-equipped McDonnell Douglas MD-11 began commercial flights following winglet testing by the company under the ACEE program.

In 1999, Aviation Partners Boeing (APB) was formed, a partnership with Seattle-based Aviation Partners Inc. and The Boeing Company. The companies created APB initially to equip Boeing Business Jets, a 737 derivative, with Aviation Partners’ unique take on the NASA-proven winglet technology: Blended Winglets.

Product Outcome

Aircraft with winglets
Aviation Partners Boeing manufactures and retrofits Blended Winglets for commercial airliners. The technology typically produces a 4- to 6-percent fuel savings, which can translate to thousands of gallons of fuel saved per plane, per year.

Like other winglet designs, APB’s Blended Winglet reduces drag and takes advantage of the energy from wingtip vortices, actually generating additional forward thrust like a sailboat tacking upwind. Unlike other winglets that are shaped like a fold, this design merges with the wing in a smooth, upturned curve. This blended transition solves a key problem with more angular winglet designs, says Mike Stowell, APB’s executive vice president and chief technical officer.

“There is an aerodynamic phenomena called interference drag that occurs when two lifting surfaces intersect. It creates separation of the airflow, and this gradual blend is one way to take care of that problem,” he says.

APB’s Blended Winglets are now featured on thousands of Boeing aircraft in service for numerous American and international airlines. Major discount carriers like Southwest Airlines and Europe’s Ryanair take advantage of the fuel economy winglets afford. Employing APB’s Blended Winglets, a typical Southwest Boeing 737-700 airplane saves about 100,000 gallons of fuel each year. The technology in general offers between 4- and 6-percent fuel savings, says Stowell.

“Fuel is a huge direct operating cost for airlines,” he explains. “Environmental factors are also becoming significant. If you burn less fuel, your emissions will go down as well.” APB winglets provide up to a 6-percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and an 8-percent reduction in nitrogen oxide, an atmospheric pollutant. The benefits of winglets do not stop there, Stowell explains. Reduced drag means aircraft can operate over a greater range and carry more payload. Winglet-equipped airplanes are able to climb with less drag at takeoff, a key improvement for flights leaving from high-altitude, high-temperature airports like Denver or Mexico City. Winglets also help planes operate more quietly, reducing the noise footprint by 6.5 percent.

If all the single-digit percentages of savings seem insignificant on their own, they add up. In 2010, APB announced its Blended Winglet technology has saved 2 billion gallons of jet fuel worldwide. This represents a monetary savings of $4 billion and an equivalent reduction of almost 21.5 million tons in carbon dioxide emissions. APB predicts total fuel savings greater than 5 billion gallons by 2014.

APB, the only company to currently both manufacture and retrofit winglets for commercial airliners, is currently equipping Boeing vehicles at the rate of over 400 aircraft per year. It is also continually examining ways to advance winglet technology, including spiroid winglets, a looped winglet design Aviation Partners first developed and successfully tested in the 1990s. That design reduced fuel consumption more than 10 percent.

While winglets require careful customization for each type of plane, they provide effective benefits for any make and model of aircraft—even unmanned aerial vehicles. Consider other winglet designs on commercial carriers, as well as blended and other winglets on smaller jets and general aviation aircraft, and the impact of the original NASA research takes on even greater significance.

“Those flight tests put winglets on the map,” says Stowell.

Blended Winglets™ is a trademark of Aviation Partners Inc.