NASA's fall from the cloud frontier

eye in the sky

NASA once set the curve in civilian cloud computing, but a critical audit released July 29 by the space agency's Office of Inspector General found weaknesses in the agency's enfeebled cloud efforts, in part because of poor IT governance and risk-management practices.

NASA established its own agency-wide private cloud computing environment, called Nebula, in 2009 at Ames Research Center – a first in the federal government. But Nebula was shut down in 2012 after extensive testing showed the public clouds of Amazon and Microsoft were more reliable, cost-effective and faster.

Since then, NASA's cloud efforts have been stagnant, according to the audit, with the agency spending less than 1 percent – about $10 million – of its $1.5 billion IT budget on cloud computing.

NASA still projects that within five years close to 100 percent of its public data could move to the cloud and 75 percent of its new IT programs could head that way, too. But while NASA met the Office of Management and Budget's "cloud-first" policy of shifting several existing IT services to the cloud midway through 2012, the audit makes clear the agency is no longer the cloud pioneer it used to be. 

Much of NASA's cloud issues center around ineffective IT governance. Many of the IT governance issues were uncovered by a separate NASA OIG audit released in June. New NASA CIO Larry Sweet, who came aboard June 30, has been given increased authority to improve IT governance at NASA. 

"We found that the Agency OCIO (Office of the Chief Information Officer) was not aware of all the cloud services NASA organizations had acquired or which service providers they used," the July 29 audit states. "In addition, only 3 of 15 Center and Mission Directorate Chief Information Officers we surveyed stated that coordination with the Agency OCIO was necessary before moving NASA systems and data to public clouds."

Poor risk-management practices for acquiring and securing public cloud computing services and one of NASA's two moderate-impact cloud services failing to meet key IT security requirements were also to blame for the critical audit.

"We reviewed five NASA contracts for the acquisition of cloud-computing services and found that none came close to meeting recommended best practices for ensuring data security. As a result, the NASA systems and data covered by these five contracts are at an increased risk of compromise," the audit states.


"We reviewed system security and contingency plans and annual security control tests associated with the two moderate-impact cloud services NASA has deployed to public clouds to determine whether they met Federal and Agency IT security requirements," the audit states. "We found that the cloud service used to deliver Internet content for more than 100 NASA internal and public-facing websites had been operating for more than 2 years without written authorization or system security or contingency plans. A breach of this moderate-impact cloud service could result in a serious disruption to NASA operations."

There was a spot of good news in the report.


OIG said a new IT services contract between NASA and Maryland-based InfoZen Inc. complies with Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) standards. But organizations and centers within NASA aren't required to leverage the contract to obtain cloud services.

The audit makes seven recommendations. Chief among them: creating a cloud-computing program management office to "promulgate cloud-computing strategy and related standards and approve, coordinate and oversee agency-wide acquisition of cloud-computer service."

NASA's CIO agreed fully with all the OIG recommendations.

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.


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