NASA and Google tackle a major enterprise search project

An enterprise search project at the NASA Langley Research Center is helping to hasten the pace of scientific discovery by researchers there, according to a NASA IT manager.

WASHINGTON – A sweeping enterprise search project is allowing some of the world’s top researchers to speed up the pace of scientific discovery, according to a National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) official who spoke Tuesday at the Enterprise Search Summit 2010.

Scientists and engineers at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., are known for tackling tough problems. Their efforts helped make it possible to land human beings on the moon and they have been instrumental in sending robotic ambassadors to far-off worlds. They also regularly take on more earthly concerns, like global climate change, ozone depletion and improving the commercial air transportation system.

The work requires NASA Langley’s nearly 2,000 scientists and engineers to access and search numerous sources of digital information, including internal and external databases, scientific journals, expert directories and websites. But it became apparent about four years ago that something needed to be done to improve NASA’s enterprise search capabilities, said Manjula Ambur, NASA Langley’s information management branch chief.

Speaking to a crowded room at the Enterprise Search Summit, Ambur explained that NASA researchers had become hindered by time-consuming and relatively labor-intensive searches that often returned questionable results. NASA workers usually had to log in to multiple systems to complete the searches, and there was no common search interface that could simultaneously display results from both internal and external sources.

“We had made considerable progress in providing lots of content to our [researchers], but it also started to frustrate them,” Ambur said. “Where do I start my search? Do I look for experts? Do I look into the electronic databases and journals? Or do I look at the websites that other organizations have created?”

NASA turns to Google for enterprise search appliance
Determined to improve NASA’s enterprise search capabilities, Ambur and her IT team began talking to researchers to figure out how to make their lives easier. The investigation revealed that the scientific community often uses Google.com, the popular public search engine, for its information-gathering needs.

Ambur said NASA researchers knew that they wouldn’t always get what they needed from Google, because much of the highly technical information they require is not available to Google’s search engine. But the frazzled researchers would often turn to Google anyway in the hopes of getting lucky.

After investigating the collective search engine experiences at NASA centers throughout the United States, Ambur’s team decided to purchase the Google Search Appliance – a combination of enterprise search hardware and software that can be deployed within the secure confines of an organization’s firewall, and can therefore be customized to access information not available on Google.com. The search engine giant offers the Google Search Appliance through a partnership with Dell Computer Corp., which supplies the hardware.

“We really went with what users were looking for,” Ambur said. “And our investigation [revealed that the Google Search Appliance had] a good chance of meeting some of their goals and expectations.”

But getting the new enterprise search system to work properly would require a significant amount of collaboration between NASA technology professionals and Google itself. Ambur put together a team of core Web developers to oversee the technical side of the operation, as well as a group of information specialists who understand content and could help refine and improve search results.

“We wanted to integrate internal and external [information sources] into one place,” Ambur said. “And of course, NASA does carry some persuasion, I guess, so [Google was] very helpful in configuring the system to do what we wanted.”

Enterprise search project presents security concerns
The Google Search Appliance is currently up and running at NASA Langley, and plans are in the works to expand the system to more NASA centers.

Ambur said researchers now have a common interface through which they can search myriad information sources. The interface also gives users the option to easily toggle back and forth between internal and external search results. But the NASA Langley IT team had to overcome some major security concerns before the system gained acceptance.

Accessing private information sources from both inside and outside of NASA, while also returning public results from Google.com led to fears that some of NASA’s sensitive information would somehow end up available via Google’s public search engine, and steps had to be taken to make sure this didn’t happen.

“I have to say we have underestimated this entire IT security challenge. Some of it was technical, and a lot of it was perception. When we bought the Google Search Appliance it was considered a black box, and [NASA officials] were very, very skeptical,” Ambur said. “We did take some time to work through these issues, and we installed a test environment to make sure that it wasn’t doing anything that it shouldn’t be doing.”

More security questions arose around the issue of technical support. NASA officials were adamantly opposed to giving Google technical support workers – or anyone else for that matter – remote access to the enterprise search system when problems popped up. As a result, NASA decided that any technical support issues would be dealt with “through a human interface on our end,” Ambur said.

Enterprise search lesson learned
According to Ambur, the moral of NASA’s story is that enterprise search is a very big and important component of knowledge management, and one that should not be ignored.

“It doesn’t matter what organization you are in. It doesn’t have to be NASA and it doesn’t have to be a scientific or technical company,” she said. “The bottom line is helping your knowledge workers find whatever information they need.”

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