Autonomics Hinges on Trust

Autonomics is an idea whose time has come-maybe.

Id never before used the word "autonomic" in an after-dinner speech, but it finally made the leap from lab to lectern May 26 at the presentation of the fourth annual eWEEK Excellence Awards in New York. IBMs ambitious vision of self-diagnosing, self-healing systems, I told our award-winning dinner guests and my fellow Excellence judges, is coming into focus with this years arrival of products from many vendors that build on IBMs foundation.

IBM offers an eloquent statement of the core problem of IT on an IBM Research portal page that is admirably concise (a welcome contrast to the usual clutter of breathless vendor hype): "We obliterate barriers and set records with astonishing regularity," observes the simple declaration at "But now we face a problem springing from the very core of our success, and too few of us are focused on solving it." The italics are IBMs. Business Roundtable members, Im sure, would add italics of their own, as evidenced by statements from the group that were summarized last week by eWEEK Labs Director Jim Rapoza in his Tech Directions column.

The purchasing power represented by the Business Roundtables 150 blue-chip members has now been harnessed to the sentiment, stated in the organizations recently released cyber-security policy, that core IT products as developed and produced today "do not incorporate effective tests, checks or safeguards" to address their growing complexity and importance in enterprise operations. The essence of the alternative approach that IBM calls "autonomic" is a deeper analogy between IT and biological systems.

Running anti-virus scans or managing software updates are conscious processes that take our attention away from other tasks—nothing like the manner in which our bodies maintain themselves. We dont wake up in the morning and consciously exercise our immune systems or regulate replacement of aging cells. Instead, our highly distributed autonomic nervous systems detect and respond to needs such as breathing, temperature control and other body functions, without taking our attention away from higher thought processes.

This is not just more convenient than centralized control; its also much more effective. The process that jerks your finger from a hot object, for example, protects you much better by routing the signal from pain sensors to motor neurons through a reflex arc in the spinal cord, rather than taking the time to send the signal to the brain and back.

To get more concrete about how this notion relates to IT, IBM proposes eight goals that must be achieved. I consider these goals ambitious and am concerned that some might be overachieved. IBM proposes that:

  • Systems must be aware of the components they own or can share.
  • Systems must be able to reconfigure themselves for new situations.
  • Continual self-optimization should replace static configurations.
  • Systems should recognize problems and work around or resolve them.
  • Self-protection should encompass deliberate attacks as well as simple failures.
  • Scanning the system environment should enhance defense and adaptation.
  • Reliance on open standards should improve the ability of systems to understand and assist one another.
  • Predictable changes in the demands on the system, or identifiable trends, should trigger a hands-off response.

That last phrase resonates with recent Microsoft proposals for automatic update by default. But our confidence that vendors will do things right must increase before we let them do things without our knowledge or control.

Among the companies committed to making autonomics real is Network Physics, whose NP-2000 network analysis appliance took home this years Excellence trophy for IT Quality Assurance. Autonomics partnerships also have been announced between IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft.

Building systems that scrutinize themselves, with mechanisms for graceful degradation or, ideally, for self-repair, is an idea whose time has clearly come. Id rather have brains in the loop, but perhaps technology is on the verge of being as good—and, certainly, much less expensive.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at


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