IBM's Project eLiza: No humans required

In IBM Corp.'s vision of the not-too-distant future, server farms will protect themselves from malicious hackers, heal themselves when something breaks, upgrade themselves as needed, and in all other ways conduct their affairs without any need for human intervention or oversight.

It sounds like a scenario science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke might dream up, but on Friday, IBM unveiled Project eLiza, a multi-year, multi-billion dollar initiative intended to make worldwide computing networks as easy to use as toasters.

"It's one of the largest undertakings we've ever done in our history as a corporation," said Dan Powers, IBM's director of early stage Internet technology. "We view IBM as the only company that has the expertise and the assets to pull this together."

IBM plans to commit several hundred of its scientists in five research labs worldwide to the eLiza cause, along with 25 percent of its servers group's research and development budget for the next several years. The goal: to speed the development of self-managing systems.

The project will become an umbrella for a number of IBM research initiatives already underway, including Project Blue Gene, a US$100 million supercomputer being designed for genetic research, and Project Océano, intended to create a network of Linux servers that dynamically adjust to handle fluctuating workloads.

Several existing IBM technologies will also be incorporated, IBM said, including Chipkill, which is designed to reduce memory failures and is being extended from IBM's mainframes to some of its eServer systems. Within the next year, IBM said it will release eServer clustering technology for workload management and easy updating of software across massive clusters, and the Intelligent Resource Director, for dynamic allocation of system resources.

For now, IBM is being vague about the specifics of Project eLiza. The company wouldn't go into detail about exactly how much it's spending -- IBM's total expenditure on research and development was US$5.15 billion in 2000, but the company won't break out how much of that cash went to the servers unit. It's also keeping mum on the project's timeline and who the "key partners" it has pledged to work with will be. But IBM is happy to make sweeping predictions about eLiza's epic nature, comparing it with the U.S. space program.

The motivating factor behind the project is the bogglingly large and exponentially expanding complexity of modern business networks, IBM said.

"In five years we expect that hundreds of millions of people will be connected via wireless and other devices to the Web, driving trillions of transactions and tremendous amounts of rich media like voice and video. ... As customers deploy innovative e-business systems, our vision and leadership in self-managing technology will be an enormous advantage," IBM Senior Vice President William Zeitler wrote in a memo distributed to IBM employees on Friday.

The project will be led by Greg Burke, who will report to IBM Vice President of Technology and Strategy Irving Wladawsky-Berger. The name eLiza is short for "e-lizard." It comes from a description Wladawsky-Berger once heard noting that in terms of operations per second, IBM's legendary chess maestro Deep Blue had a "brain" comparable to a lizard's.

To computer geeks, the name is also suggestive of Eliza, the pioneering psychotherapist robot created in the mid-1960s. From a robot created to chat with humans to a vast network of machines designed to function without them ... welcome to 2001.

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