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In HAL's Footsteps

Real progress is being made in developing IT systems that do a better job of monitoring, analyzing, and fixing problems without human intervention

The film "2001" gained cinematic notoriety with the introduction of a self-aware, independent-thinking, murderous computer named HAL that became a sci-fi icon. In the movie's namesake year, IBM engineers launched an effort to develop technology to help computers monitor, diagnose, and heal their own problems.

IBM isn't trying to create a real-life HAL, but it does want to make computers smart enough to heal themselves. The promise of autonomic computing--systems that function automatically, much like reflexive bodily functions such as breathing, without external intervention--still remains formative. Developing these sorts of capabilities often requires multiple vendors to work together toward a long-term vision to build networkwide capabilities, sometimes piece by piece.

"We realize that autonomic computing isn't about building any one specific product," says Alan Ganek, chief technical officer and VP of the autonomic computing software group in IBM's Tivoli software unit. "It's about making all products exhibit these behaviors to the extent they can, and then integrating them to work more cohesively with others."

Several server, software, and services vendors are making the creation of intelligent systems and the equipment and software to go with them the underpinning of their enterprise-management development programs. So far, most have stopped short of creating full-fledged autonomic platforms. Companies like Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, EDS, and most recently Cisco Systems have created platform-level programs intended to simplify management across the enterprise.

Many companies are avoiding the term autonomic computing, which IBM has promoted. But they aim to improve system management with emerging technologies such as virtualization.

"Autonomic computing is an interesting long-term vision, but it's so far out that it's really hard to argue with," says Shane Robison, executive VP and chief strategy and technology officer at HP. "We're more interested in the interim steps leading up to a vision where the focus is on service-oriented architectures and grid computing."

The autonomic-computer effort grew out of advancements that produced ever-faster chips and lower-priced networks, giving businesses increasingly powerful IT infrastructures. But the complexity that was created by combining new technology with legacy hardware and software systems meant escalating costs and management challenges. "We were heading for a crisis, and a business' ability to absorb new technology would be lessened if we didn't address the issue head-on," Ganek says.

The challenge of managing an expanding and complex infrastructure was eating into many IT managers' budgets. They went from splitting their funds between new technology and managing and maintaining existing systems as recently as five years ago, to spending as much as 90% on merely keeping systems running.

Alleviating that complexity required tying together hardware, software, and networks, Ganek says. Finding approaches to creating autonomic features within and across those elements involved small steps and the integration of efforts from multiple parties. "We're not talking about magic here but about taking a very pragmatic and evolutionary approach," he says.

For IBM, that included establishing its autonomic-computing initiative at the corporate level, allowing it to tap into resources across the company, including hardware, software, and services. Working within the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, known as Oasis, IBM and about 60 other technology vendors have been creating standard components that can be used in software and hardware to describe functions such as event management. These components can be processed and analyzed automatically, allowing businesses to isolate and complete problem-deter- mination cycles in about half the normal time, Ganek says.

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