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Autonomic computing

Autonomic computing

The central promise of autonomics is that IT workers won't need to do as many routine chores such as restore failed servers or provision switches and routers. Autonomics can free up IT workers for higher-level tasks and give them more time to spend with business managers to find ways to make systems work for the needs of their companies.

But is there anything new about autonomics? Is it simply old technology incrementally improved and repackaged with a new buzzword? Perhaps. But IT managers keenly understand the new benefits of autonomics, while acknowledging that the concept has a long history.

"Autonomics is definitely evolutionary, and we don't look at it as a distinct point" when a company suddenly has it, says Ed Toben, CIO at Colgate-Palmolive in New York. His company has widely deployed IBM systems management products, including Tivoli software, to keep its SAP system running on servers and storage gear in 55 countries. "For us, autonomics means that systems can be self-managed, and the more you can do that, the better," says Toben. With steady growth in systems at Colgate-Palmolive, "there's just a constant struggle against expansion and complexity," he explains.

John Freeman, senior process engineer at Bayer HealthCare, a Shawnee, Kan.-based division of Bayer , says the drug maker uses software from Tripwire in Portland, Oregon, to provide control in the manufacturing process. Federal mandates require valid digital records, so automatic monitoring and reporting is critical, he points out.

"We're constantly looking for ways to automate processes, whether it is a machine or an operator process or data collection and generation of reports," says Freeman. "In IT, we're trying to put ourselves out of work."

Eventually, Freeman wants a management system that automatically reports on manufacturing systems and the security of production, so if there's any corruption in an application file, for example, the process can be rolled back to a previous file version automatically while immediately generating a report for inspectors.

Further, Freeman argues that any new autonomic capabilities shouldn't require major changeovers of operating systems or hardware.

Users who are considering autonomics say they want systems that are able to reboot the hardware used by applications that have failed, such as email or database servers. For example, an autonomic process could reboot a server and notify an IT administrator or reroute functions to a backup application on another machine.

"Every time I have to restart my customer database, my customers don't have access," complains Perry Cain, chief technology officer at Suppleye.com, an e-procurement medical products supplier in Fairlawn, Ohio. "I'd like fewer restarts. (But) I'd like to see autonomics in a lot of products."

Vendors are promising many other potential benefits, such as the ability to raise the utilization rates of servers by running multiple applications on a single underused server. Or organisations might be able to marshal clusters of servers to do high-priority work and then automatically jump back to a prior job once the urgent task is done. The process would happen without human intervention, based on policies set by managers, according to Thomas Bittman, an analyst at Gartner in Stamford, Conn.

When something breaks in systems today, management software typically uses annoying beepers and lights to alert systems administrators, who then run to fix things. With more autonomic tools, Bittman says, processes can be written that will define remedial actions that machines can take, instead of just alerting overworked IT staffers.

With autonomics, says Laura Koetzle, an analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., server utilization rates could be "massively higher," perhaps rising to an average of 80 % from the 20 % that's typical today. She also suggests that there will be dramatic increases in labour efficiency, thanks to a reduction in the number of mundane and repetitive tasks and an increase in the speed at which IT problems can be resolved. Tasks that once took months could be completed in days or even hours, she says.

Today, systems monitoring capabilities are widely available, but systems capable of making automated responses based upon business demands are on the way, analysts say. There's an array of vendors lining up to provide new products, with some announcements planned in the fall.

Coming Attractions

Gartner lists 22 technologies related to autonomics that are coming in the next decade. Those that are either available today or expected in less than two years include automatic high-availability/fail-over capability, network load balancing, resource chargeback to user groups, hardware partitioning and in-house massively parallel processing (MPP) grids, which offer the ability to use excess computing capacity on distributed clients or servers for parallel processing workloads in a secure way.

In two to five years, autonomic computing will foster technologies such as self-healing software, IT service provisioning, MPP grids external to organisations, root-cause discovery and correction, and self-healing hardware, Gartner says. Between 2008 and 2013, Gartner predicts major innovations such as general-purpose grid computing as well as service billing, service governing and service policy managing systems that shift IT resources to meet business needs at the lowest cost.

The biggest long-term promise of autonomics is that it will save users money, primarily by taking expensive IT workers off of mundane tasks, says Forrester's Koetzle. But she says she doesn't expect a decrease in IT jobs. Instead, she sees well-trained workers being reallocated to development and planning functions.

Toben at Colgate-Palmolive concurs. "Our IT shop is so busy that the risk of job loss seems remote," he says.

"My concern in 10 years is there won't be enough people with knowledge of the automated process, and that that could lead to downtime," adds Bayer's Freeman.

The biggest cultural challenge with autonomics will be deciding how much control to give over to the computing infrastructure. But Rich Ptak, an analyst at Ptak & Associates in Amherst, N.H., says he believes vendors will set up autonomic tools to give IT managers a range of authority, from very little to a lot. "A process could be set at a semiautomatic rate at first," he notes.


Autonomic Prep Plan

IT managers and staffers need to:

- Evaluate ways to better understand business needs and get ready to meet those needs.

- Set up best practices for service-level management by mapping IT services to their underlying hardware and software components.

- Enable automated server provisioning with standard server images.

- Consolidate servers and storage.

- Restructure the IT organisation to consolidate management of computing resources.

- Change chargeback systems so that all distributed systems are used by all users, with IT staff organising usage. This would change the current predominant practice where certain servers and systems are dedicated for certain workgroups and purposes.

Source: Gartner


Behind the Name

Autonomic computing, also called on-demand computing, organic IT and other names, means business policies and service-level agreements "drive dynamic and automatic optimisation of the IT infrastructure," according to Gartner The research firm has dubbed the phenomenon "real-time infrastructure," replacing the term it used two years ago, "policy-based computing services."

"It means," says Amy Wohl, an analyst at Wohl Associates in Narberth, Pennsylvania, "allowing the computer to automate and control as much of the routine tasks of the system as are feasible at any moment and allowing them to be managed under policies set by the organization."

The analysts admit their definitions are broad and sound like what systems management vendors and experts have been talking about for 15 years. In fact, some analysts include more than 20 technologies under the general heading of autonomics, including self-healing software and grid computing.

Because of the poor economy and the focus on getting payoff from IT investments, user interest in autonomics is suddenly higher and there have been more announcements of software tools with improved functions, says Gartner analyst Thomas Bittman.

There are other forces driving interest in autonomics. For example, the performance of networking, server and storage hardware is increasing while the costs of those products are going down, Bittman adds. Meanwhile, IT labour costs are still going up and make up the lion's share of an IT budget.

Also, hardware vendors are seeing their profit margins dry up as the cost of servers goes down, and they've been rushing to buy smaller companies or develop autonomic products for future revenues, he says.


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