IBM's Morris Speaks on Autonomic Computing

Our Machines, Ourselves

Computers are often compared to an electronic brain, but if IBM has its way they will be more like the human body. Speaking at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in Santa Clara, Calif, IBM's Robert Morris said computers need to become self-managing systems like our bodies.

Morris, who directs IBM's Almaden research center, identified three major areas where computers fall short of our expectations and create problems for enterprises. He believes IBM's work in autonomic computing will obviate these issues.

The first area Morris targets is the overall cost of IT management. As enterprises are called on to manage more and more data, they require more human intervention. He cited a statistic that indicates one third of IT costs went to storage management in 1984, but two-thirds of those costs go to storage today. As the amount of data increases, routine housekeeping tasks have become more complex.

A second area for concern is poor availability. Morris unfavorably compares the reliability of server infrastructures to the reliability of the long-distance phone network. Users tolerate outages in Web sites that would be mind-boggling in a land-line telephone system. Morris attributes many of these failures to errors by operators and developers, failures impossible in a mostly self-managing telephone switch.

The third and final shortcoming in computing Morris takes to task is poor user experience. The additional complexity of new systems and services requires users to do more work to get the information they need. "The next big change in computing will be a massive simplification," Morris says.

While user experience may be simplified, the computer systems themselves will perform more complex tasks. Morris sees the self-managing nature of the human body as a model for how computer tasks should be executed. "We don't reconfigure our legs to run," Morris says, believing users shouldn't need to reconfigure machines for a new task.

Morris believes the key to autonomic computing is collaborative and open standards for both machines and developers. "We have to create a holistic system where these systems work together constructively," he says. Morris points to projects such as the Globus grid project as an example of an open project that will improve the computing experience and ensure the availability of computing power.

Autonomic computing will also require work at each level of the computing infrastructure, according to Morris. While he says much of the work has been done at the system level, such as RAID and redundant, highly available systems, work needs to be done from clusters, to Web farms, up to the entire enterprise infrastructure.

Morris believes IBM's assertion that open standards are the way gains credence in the light of IBM's diversified offerings. "If you drew the stack, IBM competes in more levels, including services, than anyone else," he says. If someone wanted to monopolize autonomic computing, IBM would be in the best position to do so, according to Morris. However, IBM knows it cannot do it alone and, thus, works with other vendors, academe, and governments.

About the Author

Chris McConnell is Product and Technology Editor for Enterprise Systems.