Agencies flirt with autonomic computing

Agencies flirt with autonomic computing

Although vendors and standards bodies have released autonomic computing tools, agencies still are testing the technology and experts predict mainstream use to be five years out.

Autonomic computing is a phrase that describes self-managing computers, or computers that can monitor themselves and automatically adjust to optimize performance and circumnavigate hardware and software failures.

IBM Corp. sponsored a discussion of the technology today at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

NASA is looking at autonomic computing best practices as it moves its own space-based data collections from standalone systems to integrated systems, said Peter Hughes, assistant chief for technology in the Information Systems Division at Goddard Space Flight Center.

Hughes pointed to several multicraft missions in which spacecraft must coordinate data collections for researchers. Agency program managers are working toward a distributed space systems architecture that would let different missions coordinate data collection and even change missions on the fly, he said.

NASA could also use commercial autonomic technologies to help manage the large data centers and control systems that do the numerical modeling, Hughes said.

The Pacific Command also has tested autonomic computing, said Gail Kaiser, director of the Programming Systems Laboratory at Columbia University. The command tried tools created by a consortium funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to build a reference architecture for self-healing computing. Kaiser is a participant in the project, known as Kinesthetics Extreme.

The command has a piloted the GeoWorld system, developed by the University of Southern California, to spot trends by collecting news items from public Web sites and placing them in a geographical information system. The Kinesthetics tools check to ensure that the news feed is working properly and attempts to correct problems as they arise, Kaiser said.

Like the human autonomic nervous system, an autonomic computing system automatically reacts to changing external conditions without outside intervention, said Alan Ganek, the IBM vice president in charge of the company's own autonomic initiative.

IBM uses the term autonomic computing for this process, although similar technologies have gone under different terms, such as self-healing computing and continual validation, Kaiser said

Autonomic computing is run by control loops, Kaiser explained in her briefing. A sensor collects operational data from a working system, such as a Web server, database or legacy application. Preset behavioral models analyze the data, and unusual behavior is passed onto decision-making software, which can then adjust the system to compensate for unusual activity.

At Columbia, a distance-learning initiative uses autonomic technologies to manage a system that lets students with differing Internet connection speeds simultaneously watch video lectures, Kaiser said.

IBM has introduced some autonomic computing tools. The company's Intelligent Orchestrator software can dynamically offload heavy Web traffic to other servers, Ganek said.

The company has also incorporated autonomic functionality into its core products, such as the DB/2 database and the Tivoli storage manager. And IBM has formed partnerships with companies such as Cisco Systems Inc., and Siebel Systems Inc. of San Mateo, Calif., to develop standards.

But the speakers today predicted that autonomic computing won't become part of mainstream computing for another three to five years. Behavioral models that better predict how applications, networks and systems behave still must be created, Kaiser said. Plus, applications and equipment must be configured to share operational data, Ganek said.

Click here for more information about IBM's autonomic initiative, and click here for details about the Woodrow Wilson Center's program.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.


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