Born from NASA, Nebula Aims to “Disrupt and Democratize” Cloud Computing

If you’re a young Silicon Valley entrepreneur, you’d probably give your Prius and your iPad, and maybe throw in your X-Men comic collection, to hear Andy Bechtolsheim ask you the question he posed to Chris Kemp this spring: “What’s the name of your company? I want to write you a check right now.”

If you don’t recall, Bechtolsheim is the Sun Microsystems co-founder and investor who wrote the $100,000 check that launched Google in 1998. The legend is that Sergey Brin and Larry Page had to incorporate under the name they’d picked so that they could actually cash it.

The 34-year-old Kemp, however, didn’t have a name ready. In fact, he didn’t even have a company—he was still a civil servant at the time of his meeting with Bechtolsheim, working as chief technology officer at NASA.

Kemp had led a project at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA, to create open source software that would tie together the agency’s computing and storage resources into a private cloud computing environment similar to Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) and Simple Storage Service (S3). The project was called Nebula, and together with other software components built by cloud hosting service Rackspace, it formed the core of an open-source software library called OpenStack. Kemp had conceived the project mainly in order to help NASA, the White House, and other government organizations get more efficient about the way they use computing resources. With cloud computing as hot as it is, though, Kemp had already heard from a few Silicon Valley investors telling urging him to take OpenStack commercial. He’d always brushed off the idea.

Chris Kemp, Nebula CEO

But when he finally met with Bechtolsheim, he says, “Something clicked. I thought, ‘if Andy Bechtolsheim is willing to slide a check across the table, perhaps I should consider leaving NASA.'”

Which he soon did. Kemp resigned from NASA in April and together with Devin Carlen, an engineer who’d worked on the Nebula project for both NASA and Rackspace, and Steve O’Hara, a telecom and semiconductor industry veteran, incorporated Fourth Paradigm Development—soon renamed Nebula. By May 1, the company had collected seed funding from a billionaires’ club that included not just Bechtolsheim but also David Cheriton and Ram Shriram, both early investors in Google alongside Bechtolsheim. The team had also signed venture term sheets with John Doerr at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Peter Bell at Highland Capital. (The exact amount of money the startup raised hasn’t been disclosed, but when I asked Kemp “Are we talking about a $2 million round here or a $20 million round?” he indicated that it was closer to the latter.)

Having recruited this dream team of investors, Nebula announced its existence in late July at the O’Reilly Open Source Convention, better known as OSCON, in Portland, OR. It’s already hired 20 employees, about half working from its Palo Alto headquarters and the other half, all engineers, in Seattle. The company’s plan is to sell a hardware appliance—in essence, a very smart networking switch—that, once installed inside a company’s data center, will use OpenStack to automatically organize existing commodity servers and storage arrays into a private cloud infrastructure.

The attraction of the cloud model, of course, is that companies can save lots of money by spreading their big-data analytics tasks and other work flexibly across hundreds or thousands of computing nodes. The attraction of private clouds is that organizations that own them don’t have to pay Amazon’s rates, or risk putting their closely held financial information and other sensitive data on a … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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