Difficulties lie behind the supplier hype for self-managing systems.
Last week, Hewlett-Packard announced the launch of its Self-healing Software Services for Openview, its integrated systems management package, in a push for the industry to implement self-managing computer systems to ease the burden of repairing faults.
HP believes IT systems should be able to manage themselves, rather than rely on armies of support staff. Systems should be more intelligent and be able to react to a changing IT environment as the human body adapts to avoid potential problems.
While this concept may seem attractive to IT directors, closer inspection shows that there are many practical difficulties in replacing existing technology with self-managing systems.
Bola Rotiba, a senior analyst at Ovum, said there should be common software standards across the industry. "If you only buy from one supplier, such as HP, that should be fine. But a lack of standards could cause problems for users."
For self-management to work, Rotiba said, applications need to communicate closely with the system management software, but the danger is how closely the application is linked to the system management tool.
If the link is too tight, applications will need to support proprietary system management interfaces rather than open standards, leading to complexity and additional expense.
HP's interpretation revolves around a self-healing software "engine". The company said the engine automatically detects faults and analyses system information but there is still a need for intervention from support staff who act on the recommendations the engine provides.
The ultimate aim, according to Paul Hodgetts, software business unit director at HP, is full automation without human intervention. "You should be able to configure a system to perform certain tasks in response to identified problems," he said.
Sun Microsystems offers the N1 architecture which is also designed to manage servers and storage dynamically. Jonathan Mills, product specialist at Sun, said the aim of the architecture was to manage a standard application within N1 without modification to the application. The system manages itself and is able to bring new systems online if it fails.
A more radical approach to self-managing systems is Microsoft's Dynamic Systems Initiative, which allows applications to be engineered to interpret whether they are running efficiently. Michael Emmanuel, senior product manager at Microsoft, said, "Applications need to participate in their own management."
IBM also predicts a change in the ways applications are built to make them self-managing through its autonomic computing strategy. Last month, the company announced a number of technologies that form the basis of its self-managed strategy, including problem determination, policy-based management and heterogeneous workflow management.
The self-healing software focuses on four areas: self-healing, self-optimisation, self-configuration and self-protection.
It also unveiled an autonomic toolkit for software developers, designed for building IT management into applications.
While IBM was developing technology around its autonomic computing strategy, Kevin Denyer, manager of the customer programme for autonomic computing at IBM, said industry standards were not yet in place for most of these technologies.
Rather than expect the industry to agree on one common standard, Denyer said IBM is fighting for a formal interchange based on XML to allow different approaches to self-managed IT to work together.
According to Denyer, the move to self-managed IT systems will have a marked effect on the IT skill set. "The technology will be disruptive and will change the skills requirement in the datacentre. To some degree we will do away with database administrators.
"Staff costs can account for 53% of datacentre costs and 80% of staff time is spent maintaining existing IT systems. IBM's goal is to make the datacentre self-managing. We will end up with a different set of skills," he said.
Given the lack of standards and the disruptive nature of the technology, the big question is whether the industry can truly make self-healing and self-managed IT systems work.
David Roberts, chief executive officer at Corporate IT Forum Tif, said, "The notion of an electronic software hospital is an extremely challenging idea.
"Self-healing represents a public acknowledgement that software companies have been unable to resolve quality issues in their products. I would prefer the industry to concentrate on quality, rather than self-healing technology, to fix errors in poorly written code."
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An overview of self-healing software
High-end systems are becoming so complex that it can cost 10 times the amount spent on the system to manage it, not including the amount lost through downtime.
Self-healing software monitors IT systems and automatically performs tasks otherwise done manually, such as re-allocating resources and determining when memory upgrades are needed.
This can be attractive for IT directors, as staff numbers can be reduced and existing staff can be redirected to other areas. Employees' working hours can be reduced, as can time spent on the helpdesk.
However, there may be a change to the skill set of IT staff such as database administrators, should standards in self-healing software become unified and it is embraced by the industry.