Self-Aware Servers

Wouldn’t it be great if your complex server systems worked like your own autonomic nervous system?

Hiep Vuong thinks so.

“The main idea behind autonomous computing is based on the autonomic nervous system of the human body. It looks after itself, heals itself and is self-aware. We want to expand those concepts into the computing world,” says Vuong, who is chief technology officer for Net Integration Technologies Inc. (www.net-itech.com), a Markham, Ontario, Canada-based developer of autonomic network systems.

The autonomic system in the human body sends signals throughout the body to various organs, regulating such functions as body temperature, breathing and heart rate without requiring conscious thought. If applied to a computer system, according to Vuong, the various systems and services of a modern computer system would act much the same way. “IBM Corp., (www.ibm.com) based in Armonk, N.Y., is “a pioneer in autonomous computing,” says Vuong. “It defines autonomic computing as ‘computers that are self-aware, can be configured on their own, are self-healing, self-protecting, not proprietary, and anticipate and optimize their resources.’ While IBM seems to be concentrating on large enterprise problems, we have been researching solutions for small to mid-size businesses.”

Information technology (IT) is becoming more complex, making networks more complicated to install, configure, secure and maintain, and driving the total cost of ownership (TCO) higher. This has created problems, especially for small to mid-sized businesses that do not have the same resources or IT support options as larger enterprises. As a result, there is a rising demand and clear opportunity for a new generation of intelligent network infrastructure.

Fix a firewall

Autonomic features in IT infrastructure such as self-installing and self-healing capabilities were meant originally for large businesses, and priced accordingly, notes Malcolm Etchells, Net Integration vice president of customer service. “But small-to-mid-sized businesses have a great need, with much less internal support and budget,” he points out. “So we looked at what we could do for them.” One application offered by Net Integration can monitor a system and close ports if the firewall is broken, then open them again when the system is repaired.

This is still a new technology with much of the work being done at universities such as the University of Illinois, according to Etchells. IBM is currently the commercial leader in autonomic computing.

The dream of autonomic computing, says Etchels, is that the system takes care of itself with only top level instructions. This type of system will not happen overnight. The first step is getting systems to interact with each other, then getting multiple systems to start interacting. They should automatically become aware of each other and transfer knowledge of their environments. The essence of the approach is simplicity, that is, to hide the complexity from administrators so that they don’t have to figure it out each time they have torun it.

According to an IBM white paper on the subject, autonomic computing was conceived to decrease the spiraling demands for skilled IT resources, reduce complexity and drive computing into a new era that may better exploit its potential to support higher order thinking and decision making.

Immediate benefits will include reduced dependence on human intervention to maintain complex systems, accompanied by a substantial decrease in costs. Long-term benefits will allow individuals, organizations and businesses to collaborate on complex problem solving.

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