Earlier this week, in the run-up to the touchdown on Mars by NASA's latest rover Curiosity, the space agency was busy making sure that millions across the world could watch the spectacle without a hitch. The US space agency turned to the power of cloud computing to live stream the event dubbed 'Seven minutes of terror' to a watching world.
NASA teamed up with SOASTA, a specialist agency, to make sure the live streaming of Curiosity's landing could weather sudden demand spikes and equipment failures. SOASTA used cloud-based resources to mimic the traffic generated by millions of real-world users to test whether NASA's applications could handle heavy traffic loads.
The tests involved generating more than 25 Gbps of traffic from regions across the world, using Amazon's cloud, to pound the application for nearly 40 minutes. They also put to test the underlying infrastructure's capacity to handle failures and the cloud's ability to bring them back up. In all, SOASTA's testing servers downloaded a whopping 68TB of video during the test. Once Curiosity starts operating normally, data sent back to Earth by the rover will be crunched at a cloud computing hive.
The fact that cloud resources can be used to test weak links in an application's infrastructure easily and inexpensively have made it a natural favorite for such tasks. This is not the first time SOASTA is doing tests for heavy traffic websites. It recently tested London2012.com, the official Olympics web site. Video rental companies, such as Netflix, routinely use cloud resources to do this kind of testing.
NASA has been dabbling with the cloud since the time of Curiosity's predecessors Spirit and Opportunity. Those two rovers landed on Mars with a life expectancy of a few months but are still functional. Their extended lives have massively increased the volumes of data streamed back to Earth, outgrowing the systems originally planned for handling such data. As a result, the project team that built those two rovers has become the first in NASA to use cloud computing for daily mission operations.
Cloud also helps NASA deliver the data quickly to the big, collaborative user communities that have grown around the rovers over the years. NASA CIO Linda Cureton said recently that the agency has saved almost a million dollars by moving IT infrastructure to the cloud.
The cloud has also come to the help of other headline science projects in recent times. In Europe, CERN, the Geneva-based particle physics organization, the European Space Agency (ESA) and Germany-based European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) are partnering with a consortium of IT companies to make available a cloud-based platform to process the vast volumes of information they are gathering. The platform will be called Helix Nebula -- the Science Cloud.