Sky's the limit for new IT options at NASA's Goddard center

Adrian Gardner, CIO at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, says balancing IT agility with sound and secure practices is a challenge

Whether it’s coming up with a secure way for employees to use iPads at work, helping scientists tap supercomputers in the cloud or providing the communication link for the president to speak with U.S. astronauts in orbit, Adrian Gardner is rarely short on fresh challenges as CIO at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Gardner’s more than two decades in federal technology management has given him a wide perspective, and that experience helps him navigate the broad sweep of emerging IT opportunities. Before becoming CIO and director of the IT and Communications Directorate at Goddard in June 2010, Gardner was CIO at the National Weather Service for three years and held IT leadership positions at the Energy Department for 17 years. He is also a veteran of the Air Force.

Gardner recently spoke with senior writer Alice Lipowicz about the rapidly shifting IT landscape and the challenges and opportunities for federal CIOs.

FCW: Please tell us about your role as CIO at Goddard.

Gardner: I wear two hats — an agency hat and a Goddard hat. For NASA, I provide all mission communication services. Any time a vehicle, such as the space shuttle or space station, leaves Earth’s atmosphere, the communication comes through my organization. When the president speaks to the people in the space station or the shuttle, we facilitate that.

At Goddard, my budget for the IT portfolio is a little more than $200 million a year. We recently released an IT strategic plan that links IT to the critical competencies we need to maintain.

Our main mission at Goddard is science. We are part research lab and part factory, with structural and mechanical engineers to build in-house. One of our best-known projects was the Hubble Space Telescope, and now we are building the James Webb Space Telescope.

We provide services to the NWS and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Currently, we are building the Joint Polar Satellite System with NOAA.

I have about 400 employees in my organization — about 100 civil servants and the rest contractors.

FCW: How are you dealing with flat budgets?

Gardner: As the NASA administrator [Charles Bolden] says, flat is the new up. If you look at the NASA budget, we’re pretty much flat.

One of the themes is competitiveness. At NASA, when money goes into the agency for a new capability, we compete internally for that money. Our strongest competitor is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

FCW: What are your biggest challenges?

Gardner: The largest challenge we have, and that NASA has, is IT security. Collaboration is key to making the mission work, but it brings its own unique security challenges.

Currently, we have encrypted access and access controls. We are also experimenting with a virtual desktop infrastructure. When an individual brings his or her device into the environment, the desktop would be an application on the user’s iPad. Because we can secure access at the application level, we would have a security perimeter around the desktop. We will be working with IBM on a demo project this summer.

We also are trying to gain access to more intelligence information regarding threats and to incorporate that information into our security process.

FCW: How are you using cloud computing at Goddard?

Gardner: Many federal agencies are looking at cloud e-mail and basic services. We are more focused on computational science.

NASA has a cloud platform called Nebula, and we here at Goddard, along with NASA’s Ames Research Center, built it from scratch. We also outsourced the code for Nebula, and now it is an open-source cloud platform.

We have jobs running on the supercomputer that could run in the cloud. A scientist could wait two weeks to a month to gain access to the supercomputer, and then the job could take three to four days. With cloud technology, we could offer them access immediately, and the job would finish in two weeks. Tell me: Which one is better? We have slower processing times in the cloud, but the access is much faster.

We are looking into becoming a cloud service broker. We have asked [the Defense Department], Energy, General Services Administration, Homeland Security, Justice, Labor, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to give their input. That is the shared services piece of it.

FCW: How else are you innovating at Goddard?

Gardner: We’ve created a position for an associate director for innovation who will examine new and developing technologies to benefit Goddard and NASA.

One of our goals is to become a factory of the future. This involves things like leveraging an individual’s personal identity verification card. For example, the PIV card could tell you if someone is swiping into a clean room and whether or not their training is current. If not, they would not gain access, and when they returned to their PC, it would give them the necessary training module. We want to enhance business processes and give the user a better look and feel.

We are moving forward on a smart center concept. This refers to a workplace enabled by next-generation technologies and business-need drivers. It will lower cost and improve productivity and efficiency.

FCW: What other leadership roles do you have?

Gardner: I currently serve as the chair of the [points of contact] working group for Data.gov and the co-chair of the Information Sharing Subcommittee of the federal CIO Council.

At POC meetings, we discuss the next generation of Data.gov, data stewardship models and how we can improve. The question now is: What is the governance model? Are we going to push everything to Data.gov or are agencies still going to maintain a footprint of their own data? Is a portal acceptable to everyone?

FCW: How is Goddard using mobile devices?

Gardner: We are embracing mobility. We have iPads and iPhones on the network, and we use the configuration that we received from DOD.

In many instances, we have traded laptops for iPads. Probably about a third of the staff has mobile devices.

FCW: Has it become harder or easier to be a federal CIO in recent years?

Gardner: It is harder because of people’s ability to go out and compute in so many different ways. Scientists can swipe their credit card and buy access to the cloud. As a result, governance is becoming more of a challenge. We, the CIOs, really have to think about our business processes in order to create more agility and enhance productivity from the standpoint of providing access.

FCW: What is the best part of your job?

Gardner: The fun part of my job is the science. It is wonderful to be immersed in an environment that allows me to learn something new every day.

I recently attended [Federal Computer Week’s] Federal 100 [awards] dinner. Even more than for networking, I attended for talent-scouting purposes. It’s all about talent and how you attract it. Even though the people I meet currently may be in a good space, they haven’t worked at NASA yet.

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