Open Source

What went into NASA's big website migration

Screen capture of NASA.gov.

NASA.gov has migrated to cloud hosting and to Drupal, an open-source content management platform -- one of roughly 110 site the agency has shifted so far.

NASA has reached the first milestone in its effort to move more than 1 million pieces of content, including about 110 websites and applications, to an open-source cloud environment. The agency expects the shift from a proprietary to an open-source content management system to save 25 percent a month in operating costs.

The move also makes it easier to post and update content and manage online assets, said Raj Ananthanpillai, CEO of InfoZen, the main contractor on the project. Before the migration, it could take up to an hour to publish information on NASA websites. That time has been reduced to minutes, and the websites can handle more content.

NASA made the transition through its Web Enterprise Service Technology Prime acquisition strategy, which started taking shape in spring 2012 after the original WEST contract was canceled due to a contractor protest.

In the wake of the cancellation, NASA officials re-examined the requirements of the original contract and retooled their approach.

Roopangi Kadakia, NASA's Web services executive, said the team interviewed more than 200 NASA employees and industry partners and found consistencies in what everyone wanted. The main concern was saving money, followed by security and ease of systems administration.

A big goal was moving away from a vendor-specific solution, she added.

"We had been using a proprietary set of tools with our old contract that were hard to migrate out," Kadakia said. "There was really no other way but doing a data dump."

Getting away from proprietary software also helped NASA officials make more informed decisions about the types of tools they were buying and using. It forced people to analyze what they really needed and question current processes, Kadakia said.

In the end, they were able to consolidate more than 25 applications, and Kadakia said her team gets about two to three requests a week to review other applications to see if they can be updated, consolidated or eliminated.

The new cloud environment has also allowed NASA to standardize its technical components, reducing the cost and time of migration. The agency saved 40 percent on consolidation alone, Kadakia said, adding that migration is the most expensive part of the process and typically costs more than agencies expect.

Technology is the easy part. Culture change is what's tough [and] making people feel like they haven't lost control or autonomy over their information.

"It saves money and saves headaches," Kadakia said. "You can have processes that you can't have in other environments."

Although NASA's methodology for moving to the cloud environment is "open first," Kadakia said that does not mean everything is open source. In fact, only a handful of applications are open source, including the flagship site NASA.gov. But she expects that number to grow a lot in the next fiscal year when the agency moves more of its sites to the open-source environment and offers Drupal as a content management service.

The new open-source cloud offering complies with requirements under the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program and the Federal Information Security Management Act, and NASA's inspector general has recommended that all the agency's components use WESTPrime, Kadakia said.

While NASA is generally considered to be one of the more tech-savvy agencies, it faces the same cultural challenges when implementing new technology.

"Technology is the easy part," Kadakia said. "Culture change is what's tough [and] making people feel like they haven't lost control or autonomy over their information."

The next phase of NASA's project will focus on bringing more applications into the cloud, Ananthanpillai said. He added that this type of cloud will become more popular as agencies continue looking for ways to reduce their spending.

Nevertheless, he said the challenge of keeping agencies running while implementing new processes is like "changing tires on a moving car."

Note: This article was updated on Aug. 28 to clarify publishing times under NASA's previous content management system. 

About the Author

Colby Hochmuth is a former staff writer for FCW.

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Reader comments

Fri, Jul 10, 2015 alex b

They probably should have hired a Drupal agency with actual hands on code experience rather than a big agency that has lots of senior leadership with fancy degrees.

Wed, Sep 3, 2014 Megan

A ridiculously positive spin on a process that is $tens of millions and many years behind schedule because senior management chose to indulge the whims of a group of young professional new hires rather than listen to the seasoned pros. As far as I know, most of the managers are still employed by NASA, although the young professionals are predictably long gone.

Wed, Sep 3, 2014

Probably more an internal NASA problem, but I work for NASA in IT and I have no clue what this article is about. There are tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands websites in NASA. Which one's is the author talking about? Clearly not my 1500 or so. We make changes in minutes. I agree with Dunbar above. Appears to be a marketing ploy. FedWeek is getting to be more of a marketing tool than what the name of the paper implies. How about "Selling to the Fed, Week" as a new title of FedWeek?

Thu, Aug 28, 2014 Brian Dunbar United States

Mr. Ananthanpillai's comment about taking hours to publish content in our old system is bullshit. It took minutes, just like it does on the system his company built for NASA. He doesn't know what he's talking about. I've managed the content on www.nasa.gov for 18 years, which gives me a little more first-hand knowledge on the subject. I'm afraid he's making stuff up so his company looks good.

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