Making a Computer Take Care of Itself

By eweek  |  Posted 2001-10-22

Can we create computers in our own image?

IBMs top research executive has issued a call to IT companies to make computers that are able to take care of themselves, patterned on the way the components of our bodies regulate themselves automatically.

Big Blue last week launched an initiative promoting "autonomic computing," an approach to building self-managing systems that require little or no human intervention. Paul Horn, director of IBM Research, coined the term autonomic computing, borrowing the concept from the human bodys autonomic nervous system, which controls key bodily functions, such as breathing, without a persons conscious involvement.

The fundamental problem, Horn says, is that todays computers require too much care and feeding. At the current rate of expansion, there soon wont be enough skilled IT workers available to keep the worlds computing systems up and running. In 10 years, the number of IT workers needed to support 1 billion users connected to the Internet could be more than 200 million — nearly the population of the U.S., he says.

As part of IBMs campaign, Horn issued a "manifesto" — which is available on the IBM Research site — describing his vision for autonomic computing. "The obstacle is complexity," Horn writes in his paper, Autonomic Computing: IBMs Perspective on the State of Information Technology. "Dealing with it is the single most important challenge facing the IT industry. It is our next grand challenge."

An autonomic computing system has eight key elements in Horns definition:

  • It "knows itself" and its components, so that it possesses a system identity.
  • It constantly reconfigures itself for changing conditions.
  • It always looks for ways to optimize its operations.
  • It must be able to recover from any event that might cause some of its parts to malfunction.
  • It must be an expert in self-defense.
  • It must know its environment and the context surrounding its activities, and act accordingly.
  • It must adhere to open standards.
  • It must hide its complexity from the user.

IBM next spring plans to form an industry consortium, the Autonomic Computing Council, to promote standardization and development in the area. The company also plans to start a grant program to give money to universities that conduct autonomic computing research.

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