A NASA Vet Launches Private Clouds

Chris Kemp’s cloud bridges the gap between bad solutions | Just like a laptop, “you can turn it on with the push of a button”

Ashlee Vance

For his sixth-grade science fair, Chris Kemp put together a cold fusion kit. In seventh grade he built a particle accelerator using a 300,000-volt generator and a vacuum tube. Neither project won first place — his teachers thought his dad had helped. “I pretty much wrote off science at that point,” says Kemp, 35, who eventually returned to it with a focus on computers.

His latest project still won’t win a grade school science fair prize, but it’ll likely change the nature of cloud computing. Kemp has built the Nebula One, a computer that functions as a command-and-control system for dozens of traditional servers, essentially tethering them together to consolidate their power into one machine. By plugging servers made by Dell or IBM into the Nebula One, a single person, as opposed to dozens, can control them from a desktop with the click of a mouse. For about $100,000, any company can have the same cutting-edge cloud computing power as Amazon.com, Google, or Microsoft.

About the size of a 4-inch-tall pizza box, it doesn’t look like much, but Nebula One is the product of dozens of engineers working secretly in Mountain View, Calif., for the past two years. The project has attracted some of Silicon Valley’s most prominent investors, including the three billionaires who made the first investments in Google: Andy Bechtolsheim, David Cheriton, and Ram Shriram. They’re betting that by appealing to a range of commercial users, Nebula One can outflank the industry titans with a cheaper, more secure cloud computing system. “This is an example of where traditional technology companies have failed the market,” says Bechtolsheim, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems.

When it comes to cloud computing, companies have two options: buy space from a company such as Amazon.com or buy their own servers. Neither route is perfect. Buying space is expensive, and companies often worry about the security of their data, while assembling a homemade cloud on a fleet of servers requires engineers to make sure they work in concert. Nebula One bridges the gap. Kemp has raised more than $30 million from investors including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Comcast Ventures, and Highland Capital Partners.

The origins of Nebula One go back to Kemp’s days at NASA, which he joined in 2006 as director of strategic business development. In 2007 he became a chief information officer, making him, at 29, the youngest senior executive in the U.S. government. In 2010 he became NASA’s chief technology officer for IT. Kemp spent most of his time there developing more efficient data centers. He and a team of engineers designed the basic framework of what is now known as OpenStack, software that makes it possible to control an entire data center as one computer. To see if other companies could take the idea further, Kemp made the software open-source. Big players such as AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Rackspace have since incorporated OpenStack into the cloud-computing services they sell customers.

Kemp wanted to use OpenStack as a way to give every company its own private cloud, rather than paying big computing firms a hefty fee to use their servers. After hearing this idea during an informal meeting with Kemp in 2011, Bechtolsheim tried to cut him a check on the spot. Kemp turned it down because he was a federal employee. A few months later, he reconsidered. “I talked to my wife and some other people, and the consensus was that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Kemp says. He founded Nebula and hired most of the engineers he worked with at NASA.

Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC, a subsidiary of Xerox, has three Nebula Ones that it uses for projects such as improving parking in cities. Researchers at PARC analyze big data sets to create models that show when workers, delivery trucks, and shoppers tend to use certain parking spots. The idea is to use modifiable electronic signs to turn loading zones into parking spaces over the course of a day. “You need to spin up a large simulation, get the results, present them, and then sit back for a while and analyze them,” says Roger Hoover, an engineer at PARC. With Nebula One, an engineer can shut down one simulation and start a new project in a few seconds. Similar functions are possible on Amazon.com’s EC2 service or Microsoft’s Azure, but they can be expensive and slow. “What we do just will not work on Amazon,” says Surendra Reddy, who leads the cloud technology work at PARC.

Nebula One was designed to update OpenStack automatically, so nontech companies don’t need a team of engineers. “Our system operates ... like a laptop because you can turn it on with the push of a button,” Kemp says. “But we make it possible to share petabytes of storage and thousands of processor cores among thousands of people.”

Amazon, Microsoft, and Google offer competing, though not identical, services. VMware, a dominant player in data centers, also has a suite of software that melds lots of computers into a functioning whole cloud. Ted Schlein, a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins, admits that Nebula has some maturing to do but adds, “The beauty of what Chris has done is make the software much more commercially viable.”

The bottom line A new computer called the Nebula One allows companies to build their own private computing clouds for about $100,000.

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