Nebula looks to democratize cloud computing with open source hardware

By combining OpenStack with Facebook's OpenCompute project, Nebula could bring cloud computing to everyone.

A new company launched at the Open Source Convention (OSCON) in Portland, Ore. today is making a bid to disrupt the enterprise information technology market. Nebula will combine open source technology developed at NASA with open source hardware developed at Facebook into an appliance that Nebula CEO Chris Kemp is calling a “cloud controller.” If Facebook’s Open Compute Project looked like a big step forward for infrastructure, operations and the web, Nebula looks like it might be a giant leap. If Nebula succeeds, it could enable every company to implement cloud computing..

“As people face this industrial revolution of big data, they can’t use Oracle anymore,” said Kemp in an interview at OSCON. “It doesn’t scale. We want to be the platform that enables that. We really believe that, if all of this stuff will achieve its potential, in being open, it will reshape the core of computing. We really think there’s this new paradigm of computing where people are building on top of infrastructure services instead of infrastructure.” Video of the Nebula launch at OSCON is embedded below:

Nebula was founded by Kemp, the former CTO for IT at NASA. The company has recruited tech talent from Google, Amazon, Microsoft and NASA. It is funded by venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers and Highland Capital Partners, along with the first three people who invested in Google, Andy Bechtolsheim, David Cheriton and Ram Shriram.

The question that Kemp and his team asked themselves was how they could take OpenStack in its current open source state and make it accessible to everyone. “OpenStack is a great platform,” he said. “It’s where Linux was 25 years ago. It’s like Sun in the early ’80s.” Now, Kemp says, he hopes to see open source hardware grow in the same way. “I’m eager to see Facebook open source hardware turn into a community,” he said. “I want to bring hardware into the conversation. I really want people to start to innovate, breaking out of these monolithic, ivory towers of computing that want to lock you in to Infiniband or Fibre channel or certain blade server sizes. We want open standards, like 10 gigabit ethernet.”

nebula_device.jpgNebula will supply the appliance. “If it fails, FedEx it back to us, and we’ll send you another one,” Kemp said. “Our little box has a 10 gigabit ethernet switch built into it. You can plug cheap commodity servers into the rack. You don’t have to turn them on. It will do that. The interface is like Amazon Services.” These servers act as monitors by this appliance, including log files and flow data. “What we do is create interface points to all of the common CMDB tools, managing tools, security tools, like ArcSight or Splunk,” said Kemp. “We will create integration points for those particular products.”

The big bet with Nebula is that this next generation of computing will be based upon open source hardware, and that the community that has made open source an elemental component of the Internet will continue to innovate on top of this platform. The open source model for Nebula isn’t novel, as Deborah Gage pointed out in the Wall Street Journal: Cloudera has raised more than $30 million to commercialize Hadoop. Red Hat went public on the strength of its value-added services for Linux.

The paradigm of commodity hardware that’s networked together with software isn’t new either. That’s precisely how Google built its cloud computing infrastructure, as Steven Levy documented in his recent book, “Into the Plex.” A “data center in box” isn’t a new idea, either. Dell, HP, Cisco and Google have been innovating in that footprint for years.

With the Nebula appliance, “you fill the triple rack full of the cheapest servers money can buy and end up with an Amazon-compatible compute cloud behind your firewall,” Kemp said in the interview. That’s where Kemp sees an opportunity, in terms of a value proposition for Nebula. Nebula would deliver OpenStack to the enterprise on Open Compute project servers with economics very close to what Google sees with their infrastructure. “We’re democratizing web-scale cloud computing and making it turn-key so that you don’t have to hire a professional Web services team,” he said.

Making that case to enterprise CIOs and business owners that have invested in a given set of systems will require a powerful value proposition. “You don’t have huge cost structure, like a Microsoft or VMware, when you’re powered by open source technologies,” said Kemp. “You can pay yesterday’s tech companies and implement yesterday’s systems, where you will pay an order of less money for an order of magnitude less capability.”

Where Nebula seems to offer something new is in combining open source software with commodity hardware and turning it into a massive private compute cloud that, in theory, businesses with minimal IT experience can deploy. That’s a big vision, and one that the world won’t be able to fully evaluate until later in 2011. Nebula will be rolled out to six pilot customers this fall in finance, biotech and other industry verticals, said Kemp.

It’s worth noting that the technology that drives Nebula comes from one of NASA’s flagship open government initiatives, NASA Nebula. Open source has been a key component of NASA’s open government work. With the launch of Nebula, an open government initiative looks set to create significant value — and jobs — in the private sector, along with driving open innovation in information technology.

“The next generation of computing will be open, not closed,” said Kemp. “We want to see the next 25 years of computing filled with open standards.”

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