The search for 1,000 points of light

NASA's Ames Research Center hopes Google will help IT explore the final frontier

In many ways, the partnership of NASA's Ames Research Center and search engine developer Google appears to be a match made in the stars. Ames creates piles of data, and Google searches for ways to find data.

So when NASA and Google announced that they will share each other's computer scientists, federal employees and industry officials became starry-eyed.

The Silicon Valley neighbors revealed two weeks ago that they have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to collaborate on information technology research and development (R&D) projects. Because the terms of the agreement are not finalized, it is unclear how federal coffers, Ames workers and Google shareholders will gain, but stakeholders are optimistic.

NASA officials said they need Google's search power to avoid an information overload.

"Our huge files of data from Mars, Jupiter and the moon need more search capability," said Scott Hubbard, Ames' director. "The Earth science missions alone are sending a terabyte a day from the ground. Scientists are drowning in data."

Supercomputing R&D will be a focus of the new partnership. Ames' $50 million Columbia supercomputer, built by Silicon Graphics Inc. and named in memory of the crew of the Columbia space shuttle, has hit processing speeds of 51.87 teraflops per second, making it the third fastest supercomputer in the world. Columbia's massively parallel architecture excels in science and engineering modeling. On the other hand, Google uses a much less expensive distributed computing structure, linking many separate servers, for its search algorithms.

Hubbard said the two engineering titans will team on the R&D of future supercomputer architectures.

"You get smart people together, and who knows what exciting things might come out?" he asked.

Google, which recently unveiled its geographic information system application, Google Earth, can benefit from access to NASA's space mission imagery.

The effect of the joint venture on Ames' workforce, which decreased recently after NASA budget cuts, is yet unknown. But NASA will not outsource IT R&D programs to Google. Ames officials have said as many as 300 employees could be laid off in a year as NASA redistributes resources to fund the moon and Mars exploration programs.

"At this point, I couldn't predict what the workforce implications would be," Hubbard said, adding that Congress has not yet approved NASA's fiscal 2006 budget.

But the agency's reorganization will not affect the Google relationship, he said.

"It's really two different things," Hubbard said. "We have a strategy of collaborating with Silicon Valley for some time. Independent of that, the agency has made the decision to restructure what the agency does."

Google is expected to bring money to the table under the agreement.

"If they are interested in a research project, Google will put their own money into developing things," Hubbard said.

The agreement also highlights plans for Google to develop as much as 1 million square feet within the NASA Research Park at Moffett Field, Calif.

NASA is molding the research park into a shared-use educational and R&D campus. As part of a comprehensive plan, agency officials envision the construction of new laboratories, classrooms, housing, museums, retail facilities and a conference center. NASA will partner with local communities, academia, industry, nonprofit organizations and other government agencies on R&D projects.

NASA and Google have provided little information about the details of their deal, which is scheduled to be finalized by February 2006.

Because "we have only just signed an MOU thus far, it is too soon to offer exact answers to the question of how this will impact the NASA Ames workforce and how much money Google will bring," Google spokeswoman Lynn Fox said. "No money has changed hands thus far, and it won't happen until we have more concrete plans."

Vinton Cerf, a founding father of the Internet whom Google recently hired as its chief Internet evangelist, said he is not privy to the deal's details. In his role as a distinguished visiting scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Cerf is also working on a project to extend the Internet into outer space.

"I have not been involved in the planning of the relationship" with Ames, he said Oct. 2, one day before officially starting at Google. "Of course, I have a lot of interest in NASA's information challenges. If Google can help with the post-collection archiving, searching and correlation of collected information, so much the better."

Ames workers are jubilant about the agreement between their employers and the search giant.

"They're the darling of both industry and the research community, and there have been employees going from one to the other over the years," said Chris Knight, vice president of negotiations at Ames Federal Employees Union and an Intelligent Systems Division employee.

He said he hopes the terms of the package, including leasing arrangements, will translate into more money for Ames and make the research center self-sufficient.

IT industry analysts say the NASA/Google program could prove to be a model for future public/private partnerships.

"The concept of private finance initiatives and other kinds of strategies is something we need to look at considering the budget squeeze," said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, an industry association.

Although using private money for the public good could produce returns for Google shareholders and the federal government this time, the private-sector financing concept might not work at other agencies, Soloway said.

"Whether the specific nature of the Google/NASA relationship can be replicated is the question," he said.

Harris Miller, president of the IT Association of America, a group representing high-tech companies, elaborated on some of the reasons why Google would want to join forces with Ames.

"It's very exciting," Miller said. First, "you've got [an R&D] opportunity. They are really looking at issues about how you send IP around the universe. [Second,] at a more crass level, there's just an office space issue."

Third, NASA can serve as a good data test bed for Google, Miller added.

He echoed the idea that Ames stands to benefit financially.

"Maybe by collaborating with Google, they can spread some of the overhead, some of the other fixed costs," Miller said. "That would help Ames take their dollars and stretch them even further, considering the financial constraints."

The Google government universe

Google has recently pushed for greater government business.

  • NASA's Ames Research Center and Google will share computer scientists and office space for information technology research and development projects.
  • Google is teaming with federal-sector vendors to extend its reach into the defense and intelligence markets. By making use of their partners' security clearances and government relationships, Google officials hope to place their enterprise products on top-secret government networks.
  • Google recently began selling business tools that apply its Web site's search functions to federal Web sites and intranets. The departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture and Transportation are among Google's top federal customers, providing the company's search service to visitors of their Web sites.

-- Aliya Sternstein

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