Computer heal thyself, says IBM

Totally autonomic...
Written by John G. Spooner, Contributor

Totally autonomic...

IBM is stepping up its efforts to create computers that can think on their own, so that humans can contemplate more important things. The company has announced it has established a new Autonomic Computing group, which will act as Big Blue's hub for research and product development in autonomic computing. Autonomic computing is IBM's term for computers that incorporate abilities like self-diagnostics, which give them the capacity to operate on their own with little need of attention from a person. "I expect [autonomic computing] to make really substantive changes... and free customers to think more about their business than their [computer] infrastructure," said Alan Ganek, the IBM vice president in charge of the group. The Autonomic Computing group will work with IBM Research and IBM product groups for servers, software and PCs as well as IBM Global Services to create autonomic technology and then build and release products that incorporate it. IBM has been working on autonomic computing for more than a year, and in that time it has incorporated the technology into several products such as its newest DB2 Version 8 database software and its P-Series servers. But the new Autonomic Computing group will be in charge of turning that effort up a few notches, spreading the technology further inside IBM's products and working with the rest of the computer industry. There, its job will be to develop open standards, creating an autonomic computing architecture that will allow autonomic computers and software to interact, regardless of their manufacturer. Ultimately, autonomic computing is designed to make computer networks easier to manage and to improve their reliability through better design, IBM executives said. Without autonomic technologies, the cost of finding and hiring IT managers to keep networks running will escalate beyond control, researchers have said. "The end game is to deliver a computing environment that is online all the time as a utility," said Nick Donofrio, senior vice president of technology and manufacturing at IBM. Building this kind of network, for example, is synonymous with moving from a telephone system operated by a person working a switchboard to one that automatically routes calls. Autonomic networks would be able to sense a company's needs for bandwidth or storage and distribute them on the fly. The computers making up this network would each have built-in abilities to recognise, isolate and recover from problems, with as little human intervention as possible. "It sounds far-fetched right now, only because it's a lot of hard work," Donofrio said. But ultimately "for consumers it means... incredibly available data and a much richer [online] environment". This network would improve online auction sites, for example, by allowing a website to anticipate and adjust to handle spikes in traffic to avoid interrupting transactions. But IBM is not the only company working on autonomic computing projects. Sun Microsystems, one of IBM's main competitors in large servers, is creating its own technology dubbed N1, which will automate tasks often performed by hand and share computing resources across networks, the company has said. HP is also working on similar products. These sorts of projects help a company sell both technology and services. "In creating a division it will help to facilitate the amount of commitment required throughout the whole organisation," said Mike Gilpin, an analyst with Giga Information Group. "It requires, for example, all the different parts of IBM Software to participate." Some of the work of establishing autonomic networks is going on now. These kinds of networks are sometimes referred to as grids. Grids, which connect one or more computer networks into a larger network, are a piece that needs to be in place to support wider autonomic computing initiatives, Donofrio said. IBM is also working to bring other new products to market, including X-Series servers and storage systems, as well as Tivoli Systems management software that incorporate autonomic features. New software called Client Rescue and Recovery software will help PC users recover from a catastrophic failure quickly by backing up a PC's image - its software load, settings and data - in real time to a network. The data can then be accessed via the network or moved to a new PC. A new IBM Global Services unit will assist customers in testing their networks for their ability to react to and recover from disasters. IBM will also establish several 'Autonomic Computing innovation centres' that will allow customers and IBM business partners to test their autonomic hardware and software. In all, Big Blue will be "turning up the heat and taking a much more coordinate approach across the company and also across the industry", Ganek said. IBM presented a five-stage model of the network that ranges from basic, which requires a high level of human intervention, to predictive, where computers have limited ability to detect problems and alert IT staffers, and eventually to autonomic, where networks are fully automated, with the ability to independently manage themselves without human interaction. IBM plans to build autonomic capabilities into many of its products going forward, offering customers who were already planning upgrades even more bang for the buck. Autonomic computing "is a vision that will take several years to realise", Gilpin said. "But with the model that IBM has outlined, there are benefits attainable at every step, which pay you back... fairly quickly for the investments you make." John G. Spooner writes for CNET News.com.
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