Enterprise Tech

Nebula Builds a Cloud Computer for the Masses

The Nebula Cloud Controller

Courtesy Nebula

The Nebula Cloud Controller

For his sixth-grade science fair project, Chris Kemp put together a cold fusion kit. In seventh grade, he built a particle accelerator, using a 300,000-volt generator and a vacuum tube. His teachers thought his dad had helped; neither project won first place. “I pretty much wrote off science at that point,” says the 35-year-old Kemp, who eventually returned to it with a focus on computers. While his latest project still may not win any grade-school science fair prizes, it’ll probably change the nature of cloud computing.

Kemp has built a device called the Nebula One, a computer that functions as a command-and-control system for dozens of traditional servers, essentially tethering them together and consolidating their power into one machine. By plugging servers made by Dell (DELL) or Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) or IBM (IBM) into the Nebula One, a single person, as opposed to dozens, can control them simply by clicking a mouse around a software console. For about $100,000, any company can buy a Nebula One and have the same cutting-edge cloud computing power as Amazon.com (AMZN), Google (GOOG), or Microsoft (MSFT).

Though it doesn’t look like much, (about the size of a four-inch-tall pizza box) Nebula One is the product of dozens of engineers working for two years in secrecyin Mountain View, Calif. It has attracted the attention of some of Silicon Valley’s top investors. The three billionaires who made the first investment in Google—Andy Bechtolsheim, David Cheriton, and Ram Shriram—joined forces again to back Nebula One, betting that its technology will invite a dramatic shift in corporate computing that outflanks the titans of the industry. “This is an example of where traditional technology companies have failed the market,” says Bechtolsheim, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems (ORCL) and famed hardware engineer. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Comcast Ventures, and Highland Capital Partners have also backed Kemp’s startup, itself called Nebula, which has raised more than $30 million.

The origins of Nebula One go back to Kemp’s days at NASA, which he joined in 2006 as director of strategic business development. In 2007, he became a chief information officer, making him, at 29, the youngest senior executive in the U.S. government. In 2010, he became NASA’s chief technology officer. Kemp spent much his time at NASA developing more efficient data centers for the agency’s various computing efforts. He and a team of engineers built the early parts of what is now known as OpenStack, software that makes it possible to control an entire data center as one computer.

To see if other companies could take the idea further, Kemp made the software open source. Big players such as AT&T (T), Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Rackspace Hosting (RAX) have since incorporated OpenStack into the cloud computing services they sell customers.

Kemp had an additional idea: He wanted to use OpenStack as a way to give every company its own private cloud so it wouldn’t have to pay big computing companies hefty fees to use their servers. After hearing this idea during a meeting in 2011, Bechtolsheim—as he did with Google back in 1998—tried to cut Kemp a check on the spot. Kemp turned down the offer because he was a federal employee. A few months later, he reconsidered. “I talked to my wife and some other people and the consensus was that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Kemp says.

On founding Nebula, he hired some of the engineers he had worked with at NASA, along with other leading contributors to OpenStack. They’ve spent the last two years working on Nebula One, which can also run software packages designed for Amazon.com’s cloud. Early versions have made it to a handful of clients.

Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC, has three Nebula Ones, which it uses for research projects such as an effort to improve parking in big cities. Researchers at PARC have been analyzing huge amounts of data to create models that show when workers, delivery vehicles, and shoppers tend to use certain parking spots. The idea is to create parking spots with modifiable, electronic signs that can turn, say, loading zones into regular parking spots over the course of a day. “You need to spin up a large simulation, get the results, present them, and then sit back for a while,” says Roger Hoover, an engineer at PARC. With the Nebula One, an engineer can shut down one simulation and then start up a new project in a few seconds. Similar things are possible on Amazon.com’s EC2 service or Microsoft’s Azure, but those services can be expensive and slow when you must send large amounts of data back and forth via the Internet. “What we do just will not work on Amazon,” says Surendra Reddy, who leads the cloud technology work at PARC.

The entire computing industry has basically spent the last decade developing technology needed to make managing a data center as a whole easier. Companies such as Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have custom versions of this type of software, and OpenStack represents a populist version of similar code.

Nebula One was designed to run OpenStack smoothly and update it automatically so that mainstream companies won’t need to hire a team of engineers to figure out how the software works. “Our system operates in a sense like a laptop because you can turn it on with the push of a button,” Kemp says. “But we make it possible to share petabytes of storage and thousands of processor cores among thousands of people.”

Nebula has plenty of competition. Amazon, Microsoft and Google offer competing services. VMware (VMW), one of the dominant players in data centers, also has a suite of software it uses to meld lots of computers into a functioning whole. Ted Schlein, a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, admits that Nebula has some growing up to do but adds, “The beauty of what Chris has done is make the software much more commercially viable.”

The bottom line: A new computer called the Nebula One allows companies to build their own private computing clouds for about $100,000.

Vance is a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Palo Alto, Calif. Follow him on Twitter @valleyhack.

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