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Forward-Thinking IT Helps JPL Focus on Robotic Exploration of Mars

World-class athletes have competed at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., for almost a century. Three miles away from the Rose Bowl is another remarkable venue, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)—where world-class engineers, researchers and scientists display their talents.

A federally funded research and development center, JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology. The lab carries out robotic space exploration and develops technologies that improve life on Earth. It’s where a lot of cutting-edge science happens.

Many of the robots and satellites that go to space start at JPL. This includes the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, the most advanced rover ever built. According to NASA, Curiosity met the audacious goal of finding evidence of a past environment well-suited to supporting microbial life just eight months into a planned 23-month prime mission.

Complex missions like Curiosity’s don't happen overnight. Roughly 5,500 JPL staff, using some 9,000 devices, work internally and with outside partners to develop the science and technology needed to accomplish NASA’s missions. This means top-notch IT support and systems are vital to JPL’s success.

Leidos, which recently completed a merger with Lockheed Martin’s IS&GS, has provided many of these central IT services, support and enterprise IT for JPL staff since 2008. JPL’s initial challenge was to automate wherever possible and simplify everywhere else. In response, Leidos streamlined hardware and software orders, automated back-ups, pushed software patches, and upgraded the technology in conference rooms for JPL.

“It was important for JPL to create a good user experience for its staff,” said Nathan Apodaca, senior program manager at Leidos. “We’ve made sure that whenever a JPL user accesses any type of IT resource, they’re treated to an easy-to-use, consumer-like environment.”

That consumer-like environment is evident in JPL’s product catalog, which Apodaca’s team built in 2009 and maintains today. The catalog significantly cut the red tape and convoluted processes that go into ordering IT and mobile equipment. Instead, JPL users shop on a simple, intuitive platform.

“No one in the federal government had a catalog that operated like JPL’s. It provides staff with an Amazon-like user experience, giving them a single view into all of their IT assets and products and services that can then be provisioned,” said Apodaca. “JPLers can access the catalog, select hardware with a single click and then see recommendations based on items that their peers have selected.”

The catalog was so successful that Leidos expanded it to include IT services. In operation for almost four years, the catalog gives JPL staff the freedom to manage their entire IT infrastructure. Everything from setting up email accounts to obtaining a second monitor to changing their mobile calling plan happens on the user-friendly platform.

Leidos continues to add requested features to the catalog and improve the interface to further streamline operations. For example, JPL staff can use the catalog to check their IT service history and ticket status.

Now, Apodaca and his team are moving JPL’s IT services into the cloud for increased efficiency and security. They started by implementing backups of all JPL work into the cloud, a continual process that preserves data in case of a catastrophic event at the lab.

The new cloud backup service protects JPL systems so that no work is ever lost due to hardware failures. When there is an incident like a desktop crash, the Leidos team can pull new hardware from its inventory, re-load everything lost, and have the JPL scientist back up and running fast.

Using native encryption, the desktop backup service also enables JPL staff to quickly upgrade equipment or any piece of equipment as part of the new standard deployment process. Deployments that took several days now take fewer than four hours.

“We have several automated scripts that we run,” said Apodaca. “The scripts identify the new system with the scientist who needs the upgrade and then begin downloading all their data. A few hours later, the new system is up and running and ready to help support JPL’s mission.”

Going a step further, Leidos has matured the way it supports JPL end-users by adding an on-site presence with dedicated staffing.  Read more about our in-house support desk as well as an initiative designed to get more value out of conference rooms by visiting  

This content is made possible by our sponsor. The editorial staff of Nextgov was not involved in its preparation.

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