Turn that light out: automated systems

There is a big difference between lights-out and working in the dark. Mark Lillycrop sheds some light on self-managing,...

There is a big difference between lights-out and working in the dark. Mark Lillycrop sheds some light on self-managing, self-healing systems.

A couple of months back in this column, I mentioned IBM's eLiza project, and various initiatives that are underway to combine the enterprise management strengths of our many and varied data centre technologies, to create "self-managing, self-healing" systems.

What's behind projects of this kind is an over-riding determination to automate as many operational and management functions as possible, and to simplify those that do require human intervention. After all, why should people get involved, if systems can run themselves?

It's not just that people are more expensive than hardware and software, although they certainly are, and the cost of manpower is climbing as fast as hardware prices are declining.

Less reliable
But the main issue is that, when it comes to dull, repetitive management tasks, we're so much less reliable than our computers. Forty per cent or more of system failures are attributable to human error (sigh - how many times are we reminded of that statistic?), and we now know that the Nasdaq can be brought to its metaphorical knees by one ill-advised key-stroke from a human being.

I know I must be approaching middle-age because, when I read the rhetoric about "self-managing, self-healing" systems, I keep getting a feeling that I've seen it all before. And, indeed, I have.

Glancing through my own cuttings file on automated operations, which dates back to 1987, I find heaps of hyperbole from a decade ago about the brave new world of darkened data centres; eulogies to the job scheduling, console automation, and system management tools that will allow us to turn out the lights once and for all; and confident analyst predictions that, "a revolution is brewing, and data centre operations in five years will look nothing like it does today".

OK, so how many people managed to turn the lights out - and keep them out? Well, to be fair, the industry has made giant strides in terms of self-management in those intervening 14 years. There are plenty of mainframes, AS/400s, even Unix systems out there that are running back-end jobs day-in and day-out with little or no operator intervention - and that's just as well, as all our technical expertise is being employed elsewhere now.

With the advent of e-commerce, all eyes are on the network: keeping applications running end-to-end across alien network territory, using desperately rudimentary tools.

Today's challenge
Today's management conundrums involve integrating our existing TCP/IP based SNMP and RMON MIBs with Web-inspired tools such as xmlCIM and CIMOM, from the Web based Enterprise Management initiative and the Distributed Management Task Force.

Today's challenges include gathering Application Response Measurement (ARM) information on application and data transfer rates, and feeding that into our network management infrastructure. Then there's Microsoft's WMI, directory-enabled network functions, etc etc.

To administrators and technical support specialists, these technologies are all too visible and bleeding-edge to be automated. But gradually, as the standards become more tightly integrated, automation features will be added to allow routine performance data to be collected and alert responses to be handled with minimum intervention, even in these apparently primitive areas.

Meanwhile, the humans will have moved on to the next challenge - wireless nets, support for PDAs and disposable clients, whatever.

And I guess that's why automation has remained an elusive target, because we are constantly dealing with new complexities; and until tasks and alerts become relatively routine in nature, until the management tools and consoles can be effectively integrated, I'm afraid we humans will just have to be involved.

I'll leave you with an excellent quote I picked up while I was rummaging through that dusty old clippings file. It comes from Robert Becker, writing in Technical Support magazine in 1988. He said, "There is a big difference between lights-out and working in the dark."

Perhaps, in the IT industry, we spend so much time working in the dark, we simply don't notice when the lights are switched off!

Mark Lillycrop is director of research at the market analyst Xephon.

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