Striving to Make Systems Self-Managing

IBM's autonomic computing initiative seeks support for new standards.

Self-configuring, self-managing data centers that use industry standards to oversee products from different vendors are still years away.

Nevertheless, delivering comprehensive self-management is becoming increasingly critical to IT vendors and their enterprise customers. Thats because, as demand for computing grows, enterprises are being forced to build increasingly complex systems, composed of many more servers, storage devices and other elements. Enterprises are even expected to borrow the concept of computing grids—networks of systems that dynamically share capacity over networks such as the Internet.

As computing environments become more complex, however, enterprises need more people and more money to manage them. The growing management cost will ultimately limit IT innovation, said John Hennessy, a co-founder of MIPS Computer Systems Inc. and president of Stanford University. "If we cant solve that problem, we will run increasingly into performance walls," Hennessy said.

Researchers from leading vendors such as IBM and Microsoft Corp. and colleges such as Cornell University and the University of California-Berkeley this month met at IBMs Almaden Research Center here to generate support for the Armonk, N.Y., companys so-called autonomic computing initiative.

The 140 or so researchers described scores of projects to build and test technologies that could allow large distributed systems to configure, monitor, optimize and heal themselves with little or no human intervention.

Many, however, acknowledged theyve only begun to define a new set of standards that would be required for hands-off management of large, distributed, heterogeneous systems.

"It will take quite a few years to get to [autonomic computing]," said Robert Morris, director of the Almaden Research Center. "Right now, were not quite sure what standards groups to use to define the standards. It could be well have to work with selected peers or partners first."

IBM Vice President for Server Group Technology and Strategy Irving Wladawsky-Berger said the company is keeping close tabs on standards evolving from the technical computing arena that could be used to enable autonomic computing in commercial environments. The Globus Project, a consortium building technical computing grids, has begun to define what it calls Open Grid Services Architecture. This is a collection of XML definitions and other tools that would allow systems to self-manage themselves and interoperate over the Internet.

Microsoft, IBM and Oracle Corp. have made progress rolling out products that make individual computing elements more self-managing.

Microsofts SQL Server 2000 database, for example, includes an Index Tuning Wizard and Analysis feature that performs what-if analysis using sample queries to automate database design decisions. Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., is working on improving the wizard by refining which statistics to collect and analyze, officials said.

IBM has made similar advances through its year-old eLiza Project, which spreads automated management features from the companys zSeries mainframes to other IBM server lines.

Oracle last week touted advanced database management features in its Oracle9i database that add self-tuning capabilities. They include the option to let the database self-manage how much space is written for rollbacks. In Release 2 of Oracle9i, the Redwood Shores, Calif., company is adding capabilities for analyzing and charting the effect of configuration changes on performance.

S.R. Kendall, an Oracle database administrator who runs a consulting business, Vatradam Inc., of Cucamonga, Calif., said that while he is skeptical the automatic management capabilities today are as good as database administrators capabilities, the time and money savings could be worth it for some companies.

"Im pretty excited about it," Kendall said. "Ultimately, even though it could put me out of a job, the cost for a staff of DBAs is stunning."

While industry standards and products to support the grand vision of autonomic computing seem years off, many researchers are attacking the problem. At UC Berkeley, for example, the Telegraph project is developing concepts that would allow for automatic optimization of SQL queries on the fly, even during run-time. A project at Columbia University, called Kinesthetics Extreme, would place Java-based agents or probes into legacy systems and tie them in to a high-level set of policies and rules to allow for automated self-management of entire systems.

Even as IBM calls for industrywide cooperation, competitive pressures are evident.

Officials at Hewlett-Packard Co., which is about to ship a second version of its Utility Data Center products, said the Palo Alto, Calif., company probably wont make UDC APIs and other specifications publicly available until later this year.

Although HP Director of Always on Internet Infrastructure Solutions Nick van der Zweep said the company ultimately plans to conform to the evolving standards, HP believes it can exploit an advantage by being the only enterprise IT vendor shipping a product that delivers on autonomic computing concepts today.