Committed NASA Techie Tries Out all the Latest Toys

If some people dabble in technology, Tom Soderstrom immerses himself in it. Whether new online services or promising new devices, he tries them, sees how they work, lets others try them and adds their reactions.

For the past three years, Soderstrom has been bringing that technology enthusiasm to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where he is the IT Chief Technology Officer. His mission is to support “lots of smart scientists” – whom he describes as his principal stakeholders – with world class IT.

“Our business at JPL is to put rovers on Mars. But we can make the people who do that more productive with IT,” Soderstrom said.

His approach to bringing in technology might be called the crowd sourcing method. Soderstrom calls it partnering. Partners include the potential users inside JPL, peripheral organizations such as other agencies of NASA or Federally Funded Research and Development Centers, and the companies supplying the technology.

From the third group, industry, Soderstrom said, “we hope to partner at the prototype stage. What if you could informally say, ‘We want to do YouTube for JPL, but with encryption’? Industry will do the pilot at no charge and they own it,” while JPL gets a bargain.

The crowd sourcing comes in when partnering with potential users. Soderstrom employs an acceptance testing methodology used by Google Labs. It basically consists of having employees try out proposed new applications. The same thing occurs for JPL employees via JPL IT Labs, as Soderstrom dubbed it.

“If it doesn’t get a high rating, we drop it. If it gets a high rating, we keep developing it,” he said.

Some examples:

An energy consumption dashboard for JPL buildings shows quarterly changes in utility bills resulting from various changes, such as installing intelligent thermostats. This proved popular with workers and is saving money.
“JPLTube” – the YouTube adaptation – makes digitized, scientific films available to scientists at their desks.
An iPhone application for scheduling conference rooms, which tend to be a premium at JPL, on the fly. It keeps track of who is using what room and when, and can divert an incoming group to another open room if a meeting in one room runs overtime. The ease of developing small but innovative applications “is why we like the iPhone,” Soderstrom said. In fact, JPL staff have created many iPhone applications, ranging from the conference room application to downloading telemetry information.The CIO office makes them available via an in-house version of iTunes. The iTunes was in turn created using Apple’s enterprise developers kit.
Ideas can originate outside the IT shop, Soderstrom pointed out. In one case, an idea came from the legendary John Casani, Special Assistant to the JPL Director and director of several fabled space exploration programs. Casani suggested a system to record, transcribe and then automatically e-mail meetings. Tests showed that transcription software just isn’t yet capable enough for this application.

“So it was an interesting idea, but we put it on the back burner. Every so often we revisit” the technology, Soderstrom said. He added that he and his staff regularly visit big trade shows such as the Consumer Electronics Show to see what’s new. They carry back what looks promising and have created a JPL technology petting zoo, open to anyone in JPL who wants to examine a particular gadget or application more closely.

JPL is also exploring cloud computing as a way of lowering IT costs and avoiding obsolescence. Soderstrom explained that in the current model, a data center is built for a mission.

“Suppose you want a mission to Europa,” a moon of Jupiter. “In the old days you’d need 100 servers, and buy 200 for safety. So you’d build before you can do anything. Eventually you have 200, eight-year-old servers,” he said. “We’re hoping, with cloud computing, to empty out data centers of anything that doesn’t need to run there.”

This dovetails with NASA’s Nebula, a department-wide cloud effort originating at the Ames Research Center. But JPL is also talking with, the online retailer and one of the first large scale data center operators to offer its infrastructure to other organizations as a paid service. Whether to use an agency cloud or commercial depends on the severity of an application’s security requirements, Soderstrom said.

Either way, he said, “you don’t know a thing until you try it with real data.”

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