Who's Afraid of Autonomic Computing?

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On the one hand, IBM's decision to compare autonomic computing to a human body's nervous system, with the ability to heal itself, seems like a stroke of marketing genius. On the other hand, that description may be just a little too "out there" -- and perhaps a bit scary -- for techies.


IBM has been the biggest proponent of autonomic computing since it introduced the concept in 2001 and has spent lots of research and development dollars on it. Yet it may still have a ways to go to win over the skeptics. As IT Business Edge blogger Loraine Lawson writes:

Self-regulating, self-healing, autonomic computing -- how do these high-sounding, edgy tech terms translate in the real world?

IBM's marketing efforts may be one reason IT executives seem more familiar with the concept than rank-and-file staffers. According to recent research by Enterprise Management Associates (EMA), 72 percent of IT execs were somewhat or very familiar with autonomic computing, compared to 58 percent of tech staff.

Yet Julie Craig, a senior analyst with EMA, told me in a recent interview that she suspects that "a lot of technical staff are involved with products that do autonomic-type things, but they just don't call it that."

Getting back to the fear, technologists' primary concerns about autonomic computing center around the fact that such systems take some of the control out of their hands, says Craig:

... technologists are very conscious of the fact that they are the ones responsible for keeping things running. They are the ones that get called in the middle of the night. So I think they want to make sure that the technology works -- that it's not going to do things that they have no visibility into, and then something goes wrong and they have to fix it.

To a lesser degree, executives share the same concern, she notes. Both execs and technologists are more open to the idea of autonomic computing if it includes tools that improve visibility -- such as audit logs or real-time online dashboards detailing what the system is doing.


Despite these concerns, the increasing complexity of IT infrastructures and the need to devote scarce IT staff to revenue-generating projects are making autonomic computing look a lot more appealing, says Craig:

... the primary driver for both executives and technologists was customer satisfaction. The second one for the executives was to free up staff from routine work so they could start to address project backlogs. The third driver among executives was a three-way tie: the ability to support IT services with lower levels of technical expertise, improved alignment with business needs and improved performance against SLAs. I think IT staff at all levels are looking to provide high-quality service, and to the degree you can automate that, that's where you want to go. That's consistent with best practices like ITIL and COBIT. As companies get more mature, part of maturity is being able to leverage automation.

Lawson in her blog spotlights an example of a company that has done this, and says its use of IBM's Tivoli suite has saved it $1 million in operating costs. A herd of IT staff used to gather in the company's data center during software updates to make sure that systems remained up-and-running. No longer, writes Lawson:

Now it takes one person to push the button and the Tivoli system checks the system's availability, health, sequences the code, then schedules it and pushes it to the system. Basically, what took a team now just takes the on-call IT staffer.