Panel: Autonomic technology faces big challenges

Autonomic computing -- the development of systems that can manage and repair themselves -- holds great appeal to NASA for its deep space missions. But the technology faces substantial hurdles, a top IT official at the space agency said during a panel discussion in Washington recently.

"We've encountered huge challenges in validating and testing some of these technologies, and it ended up taking a lot more time and being a lot more costly than we ever imagined," said Peter Hughes, assistant chief for technology at the IT division of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Although he labeled autonomic computing a "breakthrough technology," Hughes said the challenges include achieving the scalability needed to handle cascading problems that affect multiple systems. It will also be difficult to develop tools that can sift through and make sense of diagnostics data gathered from various systems, he added.

IBM and other systems management vendors are delivering pieces of autonomic technology in the form of server self-management and self-optimization tools.

Alan Ganek, a vice president at IBM who is leading its autonomic efforts, said the increasing complexity of IT infrastructures is making the job of running corporate data centers more and more difficult.

"Nobody can understand all the pieces and parts as they come together," Ganek said. He and Hughes were panelists at a forum on autonomic computing sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Much to Be Learned

Despite the potential of self-management to free IT managers from having to focus on mundane systems issues, the panelists said much still needs to be learned, such as the real cost of autonomic approaches.

For instance, many government agencies are moving from homegrown systems to off-the-shelf applications in an effort to standardize operations and reduce their IT costs. But Hughes noted that NASA has had difficulty synchronizing an upgrade of its commercial systems.

"Often, we displace some simple solution with more complex ones and are not looking at how much it will cost to maintain that system and keep it operating," he said.

Software bugs are another issue. Gail Kaiser, director of the programming systems laboratory at Columbia University in New York, said the idea of perpetually testing systems even after deployment is related to autonomic computing.

"Software engineers have long recognized that you're never going to get out that last bug in the lab," she said. "But you shouldn't stop testing it then, and you should figure on continuing to patch, repair it and reconfigure it."

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