Back in the 1980s, I was writing open-source programs for NASA. Oh, we didn't call it open source then. Open source as a term wouldn't exist until 1998. All the code we produced was “free software,” but we didn't call it that either. We just made the best code we could and shared it with people. It was a different time. Many of these programs were made available under the COSMIC software project. Today, NASA is centralizing its open-source offerings at the Code NASA Web-site.
The idea of this new Web-site is to “continue, unify, and expand NASA’s open source activities. The site will serve to surface existing projects, provide a forum for discussing projects and processes, and guide internal and external groups in open development, release, and contribution.” That's all for the best since, while NASA started formally supporting open-source software in 2003, those efforts have usually not been very co-ordinated.
As William Eshagh, who is spearheading the project wrote on the NASA open-source blog, NASA is first “focusing on providing a home for the current state of open source at the Agency. This includes guidance on how to engage the open source process, points of contact, and a directory of existing projects."
Then, NASA will provide "a robust forum for ongoing discussion of open source concepts, policies, and projects at the Agency. In our third phase, we will turn to the tools and mechanisms development projects generally need to be successful, such as distributed version control, issue tracking, continuous integration, documentation, communication, and planning/management. During this phase, we will create and host a tool, service, and process chain to further lower the burden to going open.”
“Ultimately, our goal is to create a highly visible community hub that will imbue open concepts into the formulation stages of new hardware and software projects, and help existing projects transition to open modes of development and operation,” concluded Eshagh.
If this sounds like over the years NASA's open-source efforts hasn't been that well organized, well, speaking as a former NASA developer, you'd be right. We weren't. You should keep in mind though that open-source software was never an end at NASA, it was the means to an end. That said, sometimes NASA developers created programs that became important not just to NASA but for the entire world.
The premiere example of NASA open-source software becoming important beyond the space program is Beowulf. This Linux-based cluster software is the grandfather of most of today's Linux-powered supercomputers, the fastest computers in the world..
Started by Donald Becker and Thomas Sterling in 1994, the first Linux Beowulf “supercomputer” was made up of 16 486DX4 processors connected with channel bonded Ethernet. It was an instant success and its notion of using COTS (Commodity Off The Shelf) was destined to revolutionize cluster and supercomputing.
NASA developers haven't been resting on their laurels. More recently, the popular OpenStack cloud owes its existence to NASA's Nebula Cloud Computing Platform.
With the opening of this new Web site, I have every expectation that other NASA open-source projects, now laboring in obscurity, will soon find a wider and appreciate audience.