The ghost in the machine


In the evolution of self-healing computer systems, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

The idea of an autonomic, self-healing computer that mimics the way the nervous or immune systems work in humans is a tantalizing possibility. And there is no question there is an urgent need and huge market for it.

Businesses are overwhelmed by the complexity of their enterprise systems, which require millions of configurations and adjustments to get them to work right. The cost of human labour to look after the caring and feeding of millions of computers is enormous, and far outstrips the costs of the machines by a ratio of about 18:1 – and the supply of skilled IT workers is shrinking.

But autonomic systems development is still at the fetal stage, says Carmi Levy, senior research analyst at the Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont. Progress towards computers that can be aware of and adapt to their surroundings has been slow.

People of a certain age will recall eLiza , a computer program built by IBM in 1966 that simulated a session with a psychiatrist. Although it felt like eLiza was giving intelligent responses, it actually used simple logic and mindless repetition of phrases.

“With eLiza, all was not as it seemed,” says Levy. “The promise of fully autonomic systems is out there, but the reality is we are limited by our own ability to understand how computers can screw up. However, if you ask how they can be used to simplify daily routines and reduce the drudge work, then autonomic systems hold serious value for IT.”

The stakes are high, and major vendors are devoting significant research efforts to developing autonomic systems. Levy says Microsoft’s dynamic system initiative (DSI) is notable, and the company has the most to win in this space.

As the predominant operating system and network provider today, this could secure its position as a viable infrastructure choice going forward. The more Microsoft can separate itself in that light, the friendlier it will seem to IT administrators selecting advanced network operating systems, he says.

He says HP, which dominates in the data centre sphere, is also a serious player. The company’s adaptive enterprise strategy is at the core of some of its recent offerings.

It has already been incorporated in OpenView, and the technology will show up in virtually every hardware and software network offering from HP in the future, says Levy.

“HP is highly vertical – it can sell an entire solution from the network down to the PC and the software that runs on it, so it has lot to win there.”

Read Part 2 of this article: Big Blue presses ahead with predictive computing


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