Born from NASA, Nebula Aims to “Disrupt and Democratize” Cloud Computing

8/11/11Follow @wroush

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take one of these top-of-rack switches that people are already upgrading anyway and attach an appliance that would auto-detect whatever was plugged in and determine if it is a supported hardware configuration, that would allow us to deliver this turnkey cloud provisioning feature,” he says.

That detail about “supported hardware” is important. Kemp says Nebula isn’t building a magic box that can turn any data center into a private cloud. The Nebula fabric controller—the main program that decides which computing nodes in a cloud to activate—will only work if the nodes themselves are commodity servers from companies like Dell and HP. “What we learned at NASA is that you can’t expect performance, availability, or security if you try to support every piece of hardware ever invented,” Kemp says. “The key to large-scale infrastructure is to homogenize things.”

Nebula’s business model will be pretty simple: customers will buy the appliances (for a price that’s yet to be announced) and subscribe to a support contract that will entitle them to quarterly upgrades to the latest version of OpenStack. Of course, the more appliances Nebula customers buy, the more switches Nebula will have to buy from Arista—which seems like a pretty good deal for Bechtolsheim.

I wondered aloud to Kemp whether that might have been Bechtolsheim’s motive for poaching him from NASA. “Andy didn’t poach me from NASA,” Kemp replied. “And [the Nebula appliance] is not just an OpenStack variant of an Arista switch—it’s more like OpenStack with a switch bolted on. But as a company that has invested trying to make the network faster and less costly, there is certainly some strategic alignment.”

Kemp says Nebula will continue to contribute to OpenStack. In fact, Carlen is leading a project called Dashboard, which will give OpenStack users a Web-based interface for monitoring and managing their private clouds. “The great thing about OpenStack is that it gives the market a way to contribute and innovate,” Kemp says. “By creating a reference implementation we are able to add security features that might be of interest to folks who aren’t Amazon’s target customers.”

Amazon itself, of course, is free to adopt all or parts of OpenStack for EC2 and S3—but even if it did, that wouldn’t change the economics driving enterprise interest in private clouds, in Kemp’s view. “What Facebook and Google and Microsoft have done with their own cloud systems is to say, ‘We can’t afford enterprise-class everything,’” he says. “Orders of magnitude cost savings can be achieved if the software is smart enough to take advantage of tens of thousands of commodity nodes. But Facebook and Google are the anomalies. We are trying to make it possible for the thousands of businesses that don’t have the expertise to build these scale-out systems to take advantage of all the great innovation that has happened with OpenStack.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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