Ex-NASA cloud builder's startup boosts OpenStack software

The former chief architect of NASA's Nebula cloud computing platform has founded a new company that will use the OpenStack project to bring cloud capabilities to enterprise customers.

Joshua McKenty spent two years as a NASA contractor until mid-2010 and came up with the idea for Nebula, a cloud infrastructure-as-a-service platform that was released as part of the open source project OpenStack last year.

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Now McKenty is CEO and co-founder of Piston Inc., an early-stage startup in San Francisco that is building software and services on top of OpenStack for customers who need cloud services geared toward "big data" applications in highly regulated environments.

McKenty says he was brought into NASA's Ames Research Center to build platform-as-a-service capabilities to help consolidate NASA's many websites onto a single type of framework. But after planning the project for two months, McKenty concluded that he needed a more elastic infrastructure underneath to make it work. That's when he proposed the project that became NASA's Nebula, which provided Amazon EC2-like cloud infrastructure capabilities.

That, in turn, led to a NASA partnership with Rackspace to release the OpenStack cloud software. OpenStack has backing from major vendors like Cisco, Citrix and Dell, but McKenty says Nebula didn't have as much support within NASA as he would have liked.

"I got an award and was sort of asked not to come back in the same week," McKenty says. "It was a very typical government transition."

At Piston, McKenty and three colleagues are targeting Q4 2011 for a beta release for its hardware/software hybrid service. Piston's technology will include software to boost the capabilities of OpenStack, hardware that sits in a customer's data center and hardware managed remotely for the customer by Piston.

The first target industries are financial services and insurance, while genomics and life sciences are possibilities further down the road. Piston is partnering with application providers to turn their applications into hosted services, but will likely also sell directly to the enterprise.

Piston has raised a small seed round and is now pursuing venture funding, McKenty says. "We have prototypes now and some pilot customers signed up," he said.

McKenty is looking to expand his team with Linux and virtualization experts. Piston's website says it needs engineers who have "serious systems chops, have extensive Linux experience, and have more than passing knowledge of hardware virtualization with Xen or KVM hypervisors."

Follow Jon Brodkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jbrodkin

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