Feature

Autonomic computing is the future: but will rivalry kill it?

The aim is ambitious, the time commitment considerable and the research and development funds immense. As the industry attempts to remove complexity from computing, surely partnership is the best approach?

In the presentations that have been given on self-healing autonomic computing, more than once the expression "it would be tragic if this was not achieved" has been heard.

What is tragic is that some of the large vendors in a position to bring change seem set on following an independent course, rather than pool research findings and work together.

On a trip to London last week, Fujitsu Siemens chief technology officer Dr Joseph Reger was dismissive of the campaign IBM has been running on autonomic computing and was keen to stress that it was ahead of Big Blue in developing the technology.

"IBM has done a good job in marketing, but it is not the only one doing it. We can do parts of that on our own and a lot of work has been done which we can utilise. When we ship [the latest Blade servers] in July, the system will have 38 functions of this type," he claimed.

Going it alone
For those hoping that movement towards autonomic computing would usher in a period of widespread genuine partnership, these words put a few nails in their coffin.

In a rush to get organic self-healing features into a product quickly, the next generation of Blade servers - where 40 rack mounted servers have been increased to 300 - will include fail detection and overload self-correction functions.

"We have a six-month development advantage by coming out in July. Dell and IBM will have similar devices out, but not until the end of the year," Reger said.

"With thin servers, you now have a couple of hundred servers and it is clear that individual server management is not the way to go. Management technology that can do this on its own [is the preferred option]," he added.

It appears that some firms will compete alone to try and solve the puzzle of removing complexity from computing. From one point of view, this is understandable because the rewards are significant, but it goes against the mood in the industry that IBM has been encouraging - for all vendors to try and get to the finishing line together.

There are some similarities with the human genome project, which saw the dual attempts to charge or spread the code freely divide the scientific community. Far from working for the benefit of mankind, the rush to get the code released was partly to prevent the patent-happy handful of US scientists from making it impossible to get the information for free.

One vision
The discussion on autonomic computing began in earnest late last year. Big Blue's vision of the next stage of computer development was encapsulated in Autonomic Computing - IBM's perspective on the state of IT, written by senior vice president of IBM Research, Paul Horn.

Briefly, his idea is that if computers can be designed to mirror the human nervous system, then autonomic techniques can be built into future computing devices, making systems look after themselves without any human interaction.

Horn's paper sets out clearly the need for co-operation: "We call on the entire IT industry to refocus its priorities on this essential goal. We must co-operate in developing the necessary standards and open interfaces to make this vision a reality," he writes.

"This is bigger than any single IT company. It's a vision that requires the involvement of the top minds in the technology community," he adds.

The debate barely had time to cool before IBM was carrying on with its vision and getting others involved in the project. In April, the vendor held a summit to take discussions about autonomic computing forward.

Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Sun joined key figures from Stanford, Berkley, Cornell, the US government and NASA to take part in a debate that would drive the next stage of industry development.

Robert Morris, vice president of personal systems and storage research and director of the Almaden lab at IBM, opened the conference by outlining the co-operative approach Big Blue is taking: "The purpose of the conference is to facilitate collaboration on the science and technology of autonomic computing throughout the research community," he said.

What price rivalry?
The amount of interest and wide-ranging support for autonomic computing indicates that this is a concept that is not going to go away any time soon and, despite the differences in approach, Reger accepts its inevitability.

"We are talking about many years and once this is working for racks and servers, the desire will come up for standalone systems. The real savings will show if everything is included. That will take many years," he said.

Reger argued that far from being a gimmick, the products coming out this summer, which Fujitsu has dubbed 'organic servers', will produce cost savings for customers and should interest the channel.

"The advantages and return on total cost of ownership will be visible immediately," he claimed.

Those hoping that partnership would replace competition will be disappointed to hear such competitive talk of return on investment and the promotion of one brand over another.

"Competition is healthy, but it comes at the end of the process when there is something for everyone to compete on. Right now the products coming out are nowhere near the ideal put forward by advocates of autonomic computing, and the fear is that by fighting over a concept which is still only half baked, these vendors will kill it off," says one source.

"In an era when partnerships are all the rage, the failure of some vendors to put aside their competitive instincts and genuinely co-operate is shameful. If it is possible for a single vendor to solve all of the industry's problems, why hasn't it happened?" he asks.

All those taking part in the race to reach the finish line and deliver autonomic computing accept it will take years to be delivered. "The obstacle is complexity. Dealing with it is the single most important challenge facing the IT industry. It is our next grand challenge," states Horn's manifesto.

In the meantime, squabbling over who devised the term 'autonomic computing' and who is further ahead in development is a sideshow that threatens to relegate the debate about the future of computing to yet another might have been in an industry littered with failed plans.

What's an autonomic system?
  • A computing system needs to know itself and comprise components that possess a system identity
  • The system must be able to heal itself
  • The system is always looking to get the best performance, not settling for the status quo
  • The system must be able to protect itself
  • The system will anticipate the resources needed, but keep the complexity hidden from the user
  • The system must be able to configure and reconfigure itself under varying and unpredictable conditions


IBM's position
In pleasantly jargon-free language, the future is outlined by Paul Horn, senior vice president of IBM Research in Autonomic Computing - IBM's perspective on the state of information technology.

Here is his description of the task ahead: "It's time to design and build computing systems capable of running themselves, adjusting to varying circumstances and preparing their resources to handle most efficiently the workloads put upon them.

"These autonomic systems must anticipate needs and allow users to concentrate on what they want to accomplish, rather than figuring how to rig the computing systems to get them there."

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This was first published in May 2002

 

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