Nasa cautious about autonomic computing

Nasa is approaching autonomic computing with great interest but sees large challenges and potential costs with the emerging...

Nasa is approaching autonomic computing with great interest but sees large challenges and potential costs with the emerging technology, one of its IT officials claims.

"I am extremely thrilled by the prospect of autonomic computing and I think it is, in many ways, a breakthrough technology," said Peter Hughes, assistant chief for technology at the IT division of Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Centre. "But I think there are going to be significant challenges." 

Among those challenges is the development of scalable systems that can handle cascading problems affecting multiple systems.

Developing diagnostics that can deal with multiple systems will also be a major issue, he added. 

"We've encountered huge challenges in validating and testing some of these technologies, and it ended up taking a lot more time and being a lot more costly than we ever imagined," said Hughes. 

Autonomic computing builds upon existing technology, with the goal of developing management capabilities that can be applied to legacy systems.

Suppliers are already delivering bits of the autonomic approach with self-management and self-optimising systems management tools. But systems that can manage an enterprise, leaving IT managers free to focus on high-level issues instead of mundane and thorny system configuration issues, could still be years away. 

The autonomic approach was outlined in 2001 by IBM, and is based on the belief that the increasing complexity of systems is too big a burden on businesses and governments.

"Nobody can understand all the pieces and parts as they come together," said IBM vice-president Alan Ganek. 

This complexity is making the job of running a corporate datacentre, he added, as datacentre staff spend increasing amounts of time fixing problems, and 40% of system outages are caused by operator error, he said. 

US government agencies, for example, have been moving from proprietary to commercial off-the-shelf systems to try to standardise and reduce their IT costs. But seemingly simpler solutions can bring new and difficult problems, a point Hughes alluded to when describing the difficulty Nasa has had trying to synchronise an upgrade of its commercial systems. 

"Often we displace some simple solution with more complex ones and are not looking at how much it will cost to maintain that system and keep it operating," said Hughes. 

Software bugs are another issue.

"Software engineers have long recognised that you're never going to get out that last bug in the lab - you have to eventually put something in the field," said Kaiser. "But you shouldn't stop testing it then, and you should figure on continuing to patch, repair it and reconfigure it."

Patrick Thibodeau writes for Computerworld

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