NASA Powers Down Final Mainframe in Open Modernization Move

NASA's CIO announced that the space agency has powered down its last mainframe as it moves into a new distributed environment with systems serving new needs, including mobile apps and open source.

Ever on the cutting edge among government agencies, NASA announced it has shut down its last mainframe to complete its move to smaller, distributed systems running Linux and other systems.

In a Feb. 11 blog post, NASA CIO Linda Cureton wrote that NASA€™s Marshall Space Flight Center powered down an IBM Z9 mainframe the agency acquired in 2004. However, as the agency began to modernize, it moved away from the mainframe environment and soon came down to one.

In response to questions about why NASA decided to get rid of the final piece of IBM big iron, Cureton said:

€œWe only kept the mainframe around to support applications that we knew would soon be retired. In that case, it was more cost-effective to keep the as-is architecture in place rather than migrate to a server environment. When we were in the position to retire the applications, retiring the mainframe made sense.

€œThere had been no new application development on the mainframe here for a while. Our larger business applications run on SAP in a non-mainframe environment. The retirement also realized cost savings in software licenses.€

Cureton notes that in an earlier stint with NASA she was a mainframe systems programmer working on an IBM System 360-95 that was used to solve complex computational problems for space flight.

€œBack then, I comfortably navigated the world of IBM 360 Assembler language and still remember the much-coveted €˜green card€™ that had all the pearls of information about machine code,€ Cureton said. €œBack then, real systems programmers did hexadecimal arithmetic; today, €˜there€™s an app for it!€™€ she added.

As CIO of an organization with several generations of workers€”including €œmillennials€€”Cureton is clearly enjoying herself and her role, even taking time to school some of the youngsters on just what a mainframe is: €œIt€™s a big computer that is known for being reliable, highly available, secure, and powerful. They are best suited for applications that are more transaction-oriented and require a lot of input/output€”that is, writing or reading from data storage devices.€

And although NASA€™s eschewing the mainframe, Cureton says they have their place in computing.

€œThey€™re really not so bad, honestly, and they have their place,€ she said. €œThings like virtual machines, hypervisors, thin clients, and swapping are all old hat to the mainframe generation though they are new to the current generation of cyber-youths.€

Cureton also noted that in her day mainframes were €œthe size of Cape Cod,€ but now they are only the size of a refrigerator. €œEven though NASA has shut down its last one, there is still a requirement for mainframe capability in many other organizations,€ she said. €œThe end-user interfaces are clunky and somewhat inflexible, but the need remains for extremely reliable, secure transaction-oriented business applications.€

In another move highlighting its modernization, NASA recently announced apps@NASA, a Website where NASA employees and contractors can download mobile apps that securely access NASA systems. €œThese apps enable our users to perform critical job functions at anytime from anywhere via personal and NASA mobile devices,€ Cureton said in a post from November.

The new NASA app store is part of a full suite of services that is provided by the NASA Enterprise Applications Competency Center (NEACC). The NEACC resides at NASA€™s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. It is supported by SAIC under the Enterprise Applications Service Technologies (EAST) contract of the agency€™s Information Technology (IT) Infrastructure Integration Program (I3P), Cureton said.

€œapps@NASA is a first small step for the mankind that work at NASA into a daunting world where customer expectations are measured in hours or minutes and not in 18-month software develop lifecycles,€ Cureton said.

Meanwhile, also forging ahead in areas in which many of its sister agencies have yet to catch up, NASA last month announced code.NASA, a directory of open-source software released by the agency.

In a post taking a look at code.NASA a month after its launch, Nick Skytland, program manager for NASA€™s Open Government team at Johnson Space Center, said NASA was an early adopter of open source and has been using and releasing code for years in order to address project and mission needs, accelerate software development and maximize public awareness and impact of research.

€œHowever, there was never a central repository for the code; someone looking for software needed to visit desperate field center-specific Websites, many of which did not offer version control,€ Skytland said. €œTo unify the agencies open-source activities under one umbrella, the NASA Open Government team launched code.NASA one month ago. The site is an easy-to-use directory of open-source software released by the agency and will serve the purpose of publicly surfacing existing projects, providing a forum for discussing projects and processes, and guiding internal and external groups in open development, release and contribution.€

Since 2003, the agency has released more than 60 software projects under the NOSA [NASA Open Source Agreement], but many of these packages are not hosted on a public repository and are virtually inaccessible to the public, Skytland said. €œAs an agency, we are just now starting to release software under other [more popular] licenses and truly embrace the potential of open-source software development,€ he said.

The code.NASA site now features at least 29 projects from around the agency, ranging from frameworks for satellite flight software to solar physics libraries to SSH-based load balancing. NASA also has created a Github account to host any code that doesn€™t have a public home elsewhere, Skytland said.

Some of the latest projects on the code.NASA site include Apache OODT, NASA€™s first project to be stewarded by the open-source Apache Software Foundation; Earth Science Datacasting, an RSS publish-subscribe method for delivering Earth Science data; Data Productivity Toolkit, a collection of Linux command-line tools designed to facilitate the analysis of text-based data sets; and

Interplanetary Overlay Network (ION) Software Distribution (DTN)

, an implementation of Delay-Tolerant Networking (DTN) architecture.