Looking Beyond the Clouds: Tom Soderstrom, CTO, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
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Tom Soderstrom, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s chief technology officer, often refers to himself as the lab’s “chief toy officer.” As a proponent of the theory that today’s toys are tomorrow’s tools, he’s funded his employees’ passion for the latest consumer gadgets, seeing JPL’s scientists turn them into viable, innovative tools. As he looks toward the future, which will be one of the laboratory’s busiest times, he explains his view on new approaches and emerging technologies that he predicts will provide the opportunity to get ahead of the curve — both in space and on Earth.
CSC World: JPL is entering its busiest era ever with 19 spacecraft and nine instruments in orbit, and five more scheduled launches in the next year or so. How are you addressing anticipated increases in infrastructure demand?
Soderstrom: We have done things that will make future launches much easier. For instance, we’ve upgraded our infrastructure so more meetings can occur concurrently with remote parties, supplementing this with an online meeting capability. We’ve also become ‘the cloud’ for our users. We just have to figure out how much capacity we need. Having to grow and shrink is key. We’re not all the way there yet, but we should be in a year. We’re also beefing up wireless and storage at JPL. The first layer is on the laptop, then the cloud, then JPL’s supercomputers and then to (NASA) Ames’ supercomputers. This will give us capacity wherever it’s needed.
Agility is also going to be huge because you don’t know what’s going to happen. And nothing ever runs perfectly, which mirrors today’s environment.
CSC World: What advice do you have for CIOs about agility?
Soderstrom: The cloud is agility, so I would say, “Get started now.” Try it on noncritical issues. And don’t think security is an obstacle. It’s not an obstacle at all because you have so much data in your organization that’s not secure: test data, testing algorithms, load testing, spinning temporary computers up for people who come in to do a temporary job for you, and collaborating with partners.
Another one would be to try and tap into the ingenuity of your end users. It’s going to be different for every organization. Really make that a priority, and I think everyone will be surprised.
Also, don’t be afraid to try things, including challenging policies. That’s something that we’re doing continuously. The only way you will know if a policy makes sense is to try to do something. Do small versions of the end goal.
CSC: You have talked about transparency, participation, and collaboration as key drivers for companies today. How is JPL using technology to achieve gains in these areas?
Soderstrom: This is President Obama’s mantra, which is echoed and pushed by Vivek Kundra, the U.S.’s first chief information officer. We think it’s a fantastic message.
Two years ago we identified consumerization of IT as one of our key trends. We realized that innovations were coming from the consumer space, not from the traditional IT organization, and discovered that we either had to get out of the way or get in front of it. We decided to take it one step further by letting the consumers, our end users, help govern and help decide how and what we do when.
So we created platforms like JPL Wired, which is essentially a very specific Wikipedia for engineers at JPL, and JPLTube, which is really YouTube inside JPL. We also created “Project Capture,” where, for example, people who need photographs of a spacecraft are uploading it and handling it themselves.
We are also using wikis and SharePoint blogs to collaborate with our partners. We’re partnering more than ever. Nobody can afford to go into space alone anymore.
For us, transparency is about letting everybody know what we’re doing so we can get their input. Traditionally you may want to hide some news and just show the good news. But we don’t do that because the bad news leaks out anyway. Instead, we try to attack an issue together and get the benefit of everybody’s ideas on how to solve it.
CSC World: You have to have a fair amount of IT infrastructure for JPL’s projects. What technologies or trends are you looking at adapting or adopting?
Soderstrom: There are quite a few, but the most important one is the cloud. Two years ago we said cloud computing, and now we’re saying pervasive cloud. The cloud is not just data centers; we’re also augmenting our high-performance computing strategy with cloud high-performance computing.
The future will be the ability to work with anyone from anywhere, using any device. At JPL, the data needed for testing is coming from the cloud, where we can use a public cloud for the gross images we need, and then, as we drill down in detail, use a private cloud. We have examples of this running on the iPad, and that is amazingly brilliant. And it didn’t come from me; it came from our IT consumers, the scientists.
The underlying infrastructure is the network. Without it, the cloud and all these remote devices don’t work. So our Wi-Fi needs to be upgraded. For our wideband technologies, we’re looking at all kinds of approaches ranging from consumer devices to relationships with big vendors. Big data is also a trend that will be the biggest cost driver of anything we do. People are collaborating more, and now the machines are starting to collaborate. You’re going to have sensors and desktop kiosks automatically communicating with each other. JPL will have optical communication to the spacecraft and those data streams will dwarf what we have today.
CSC World: You said “Today’s toys are tomorrow’s tools.” How is JPL using technology to encourage ingenuity?
Soderstrom: About two years ago we looked at the industry trends that were driving IT. We talked to partners, like CSC, Lockheed Martin, universities, other NASA centers, federally funded research and development centers, and startups. We asked where they thought these trends were going. We wanted to study them to make sure we were investing in the right technology.
We also wanted to see what’s coming so we could prepare, get ahead of it, and have it up and running before it became a critical need.
We identified several trends that we wanted to focus on. Then we began IT innovation seminars where we asked everyone what they thought of those trends and formed working groups. With those groups, which are a cross-collaboration between the missions people at JPL — discovering new planets, walking on Mars, etc. — the IT department and our industry partners, we were able to taste-test these new trends.
CSC World: What’s the difference between innovation and ingenuity?
Soderstrom: At JPL, we’ve been fostering people’s ingenuity, and from that comes innovation.
If you focus on innovation you’re focusing on the wrong thing. If you focus on how you can get end users to help you innovate, then you will get the innovations. So fostering people’s ingenuity really meant having an IT structure that enables them to play, to try, to evaluate and to get the credit. With the wiki infrastructure we created, instead of somebody hiding from the ‘IT police,’ we invited them to try the wiki, and we posted for them, taking care of the cost. This allowed them to innovate, tell us what they wanted to do, and that was successful.
We also looked at the iPad and asked, “Is it secure? Can we support it?” and the answers were “yes.” We then asked, “What can this be used for? Is it useful or not?” We realized this wasn’t really for us to answer. So we had a contest and asked people for ideas on what they would use the iPad for. None of the ideas dealt with calendar or email; they were all about using the iPad for the JPL mission. The CIO technology advisory board helped us select the contest’s winners, who we then gave iPads so they could try out their winning ideas.
CSC World: Can you give us an example of one of these ideas?
Soderstrom: When we send a spacecraft up in space it has to be super clean, no bacteria, nothing. So we use a clean room where people in white suits prepare the spacecraft. If you introduce paper, such as assembly instructions, the room becomes “dirty.” However, an iPad could be used instead of paper to show how to assemble the spacecraft, go through a checklist, and call up specifications for all of the pieces. When the iPad gets a camera they can even replace the consumer cameras they currently use. Another example is the use of the accelerometer, which is available only on the iPad. It can be used to control equipment by tilting it to drag forward or sideways. Right now we have an iPhone app driving our Mars Rovers, and we could do that on the iPad. You can also see all the test results and telemetry coming in directly on the iPad as a graph. This eliminates the need to walk across the room each time a test is done.