From the stars to the cloud—NASA image and video library comes home

Jerry Bowles Profile picture for user jbowles May 1, 2017
Over seven decades, NASA, the American space agency, accumulated a massive collection of images, videos and audio files spread over more than 60 collections and 10 web sites. The challenge was how to bring them all together into one big, searchable database.   

Launch NASA
NASA was hastily formed in 1958 by the U.S. in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik I, the first artificial Earth satellite, an event that shocked the Western world and officially launched the Space Age.

In the seven decades since, the American space agency has put a man on the moon, logged billions of miles of space exploration, sent a roving robot to Mars, sent satellites to photograph all the planets in our solar system, created several generations of astronauts, launched the Hubble Space Telescope, and more—in the process gathering the mother lode of space exploration photos, audio and videos.

Alas, for the pubic or anyone else who wanted to see or use these historic materials, they were spread across 10 NASA field centers—most of which shared material on their own web sites and in their own way. If you wanted astronaut material, you had to know to go to the Johnson Space Center site. The Kennedy Space Center had the best choice of launch photos. And if you were looking for outer space images--planets, comets, and so--the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was the go-to site.

NASA turned to InfoZen, a Bethesda,  MD-based cloud broker and provider of public sector IT services and solutions, to consolidate the space agency’s web hosting, operations, and security activities and provide them with a completely new architecture based on cloud technologies.

InfoZen has helped the space agency migrate more than 200 websites and applications to the cloud in recent years through its Web Enterprise Service Technology (WESTPrime) contract, one of five agency-wide IT service contracts under NASA’s Enterprise Services and Integration Division.

Once it got buy-in from the agency’s field centers, InfoZen migrated 65 websites and applications to the cloud using its LaunchRAMP Enterprise Cloud Broker Solution, including the agency’s flagship website and the new NASA Image and Video Library, which brings 140,000 images, audio and videos collected by NASA over the decades into one, easy-to-use and searchable location.

The library allows the public to search, share and download NASA content from 60 collections now hosted entirely in the Amazon Web Services cloud. The process took 13 months. To extend usability and flexibility, the Library’s Application Programming Interface (API) automates imagery uploads for NASA and gives members of the public the ability to embed content in their own sites and applications.  InfoZen consolidated and integrated web service delivery capability for Sandbox, Development, Test, Staging, and Production environments.

The repository is the culmination of a 3-year effort to make NASA’s data more open and accessible to the public, said Rodney Grubbs, NASA imagery expert program manager.  Grubbs said the new searchable site does not contain everything but is more a “NASA’s Greatest Hits” approach.

What we attempted to do was put the best of the best from 60 collections NASA had into one place. Up until now, we haven’t had one single location on the web where you could search across that wide a gamut of content. The key to making it searchable was creating a common metadata system for everybody to use

InfoZen says moving from a proprietary content management system to a cloud-based open source model saved NASA more than 25 percent in monthly operations and maintenance costs, streamlined application modernization within a secure, FedRAMP-compliant environment, and enabled new levels of collaboration across geographically dispersed NASA facilities and partners throughout academia and industry.

The new cloud-based infrastructure enables to rapidly scale to handle the 600,000 unique visits per day and 140 million unique visits per year that the site receives.

InfoZen CEO Raj Ananthanpillai said:

One aspect that enabled this project was that it was completely cloud-based and NASA did not need to make any hardware investment.  The NASA library is implemented as immutable Infrastructure as Code in a cloud native architecture using AWS services. The makes for an extremely responsive user experience for the public as images and assets are propagated around the world.

My take

For federal, state and local governments stuck with costly and inflexible old proprietary content management systems, NASA’s success suggests the move to an open source cloud based, shared service approach is rapidly becoming a no-brainer. The operational and cost efficiencies—like no infrastructure costs, improved collaboration across geographically dispersed facilities and partners, lower operating costs, ability for content-creators to add and change content in minutes rather than weeks—are all simply too good to be ignored.

Cloud deployments have become so popular that the federal government launched its Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, or FedRAMP, in 2012 to certify a consistent way for cloud service providers to offer security assessment, authorizations and continuous monitoring to government organizations.

State and city governments rely on third-party contractors to assess cloud providers for them.  Federal customers need to remember that FedRAMP requires the cloud provider secures the internet and physical infrastructure, but the cloud customer is responsible for protecting its own data and systems.

On a more personal note, NASA’s Image and Video Library has a simple and elegant search page, lightning fast response time thanks to great metadata, and is a delight to use.  Go to the page, type in, say, Jupiter, and spend the next hour looking through images of that magical planet

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