This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special R&D report: They Might Be Giants: Seeds of a Tech Turnaround.
If you're being chased by a big snarling dog, you don't have to worry about adjusting your heart rate or releasing a precise amount of adrenaline. Your body automatically does it all, thanks to the autonomic nervous system, the master-control for involuntary functions from breathing and blood flow to salivation and digestion.
At IBM Corp. [ranked (5) among the Top 100 R&D Spenders] and elsewhere, researchers are mimicking that model by developing the components and feedback loops necessary for computer systems to run themselves. The hope is that the constant and costly intervention of database and network administrators trying to figure out what must be done will soon be a thing of the past. Among the first of these projects are some that enable computer systems to optimize computing resources and data storage on their own.
Farther off in the future are other components of this autonomic vision, like maintaining ironclad security against unwanted intrusion, enabling fast automatic recovery after crashes, and developing standards to ensure interoperability among myriad systems and devices. Systems should also be able to fix server failures, system freezes, and operating system crashes when they happen or, better yet, prevent them from cropping up in the first place.
Extricating the human from the loop is all the more urgent because of the outlook for the next decade. By some estimates, 200 million information technology (IT) workers might be needed to support a billion people using computers at millions of businesses that could be interconnected via intranets, extranets, and the Internet.
To compete successfully in so large a market [see "IT Services Market Keeps Climbing," below] calls for heavy investment up front: IBM has earmarked "the majority" of its US $5.3 billion annual R&D budget for autonomic-related research.
Success will also require cooperation among corporate, academic, and government research labs. Big Blue, for one, is at the early stages of developing such relationships and hosted an autonomic computing symposium this past April. The event, held at the IBM Almaden Research Center (San Jose, Calif.), attracted more than 100 attendees from various universities and companies, including Stanford, Columbia, Cornell, and the University of California, Berkeley, and rivals Sun Microsystems (42), Hewlett-Packard (30), and Microsoft (12).
The network challenge today is far tougher than in the days of the big networks in the 1980s, notes Alan Ganek, vice president of autonomic computing who oversees all of IBM's autonomic-oriented work from the Thomas J. Watson Research Center (Hawthorne, N.Y.). "Now we have PCs, laptops, smart phones, and PDAs all running different operating systems," he points out. The scale and complexity of these networks are strikingly different from, say, a bank's automated-teller-machine network that links 20 000 ATMs in a private network to a single data center, he says.
An early target of the R&D aimed at creating adaptive computer systems underscores the complexity issue: the allocation of computing power within grids comprising often heterogeneous distributed CPUs and data storage devices. As defined by Wolfgang Gentzsch, Sun's director of grid computing, a grid is a "hardware and software infrastructure that provides dependable, consistent, pervasive and inexpensive access to computational capabilities" by connecting distributed computers, storage devices, mobile devices, databases, and software applications.
Sun's own N1—or Network One—project, is a long-term plan to combine a number of different technologies, including grid computing and high-performance file systems, so that a pool of resources may be allocated dynamically to meet a range of user needs. Following similar lines, H-P's Planetary Computing is an architecture for networked data centers. It enables each center to automatically reconfigure its software infrastructure and allocate data storage and server resources wherever demand indicates. Its first Planetary Computing product, the Utility Data Center, was launched late last year to "provide automated infrastructure on demand with little or no operator intervention."
IBM's vision for future computer systems is somewhat broader than its competitors'. The new capabilities it is developing were mapped out in its Autonomic Computing Manifesto, released last year. The document describes an open standards-based system, one that: tracks its own resources, so it can share them with other systems; repairs itself; and maximizes how it uses its resources so that workloads can be moved to whichever servers and data storage facilities will process them most efficiently. The system also protects itself from viruses and hackers and anticipates users' information needs. The trick is to embed a layer of smart middleware deep in the system. This middleware will monitor system performance and execute repairs, resource allocations, and applications as necessary, without barraging network administrators with new parameters to set and operational decisions to make.
IBM Research has already started to guide the company down the autonomic path. Offerings in its family of relational databases called Database 2 (DB2) maintain themselves and optimize querying. Servers that automatically allocate storage and computing resources are moving to market, thanks to the Server Group's Project eLiza.