IBM: Autonomic computing on notebooks, desktops

In a meeting held off the Comdex Fall 2002 show floor this week, IBM executives pulled back the curtains just a bit on what corporate end-users and IT managers can expect from Big Blue's self-healing, or autonomic computing, initiative over the next year or two.

While most of the talk about autonomic computing up until now has been about systems on the network and server side, in private meetings held here at Comdex the company began unveiling a roadmap for notebooks and desktops.

Currently, Access Connect is a notebook technology that puts various location configuration profiles on a user's mobile device in order to automate and optimize connections back to the network. Each profile contains the optimal configuration information for a user's system to connect to the network. The optimization is based on location and known resources.

Next year IBM will add an autonomic technology called Instant Connect to Access Connect.

Instant Connect can create and configure a system automatically when a network profile and known resources for a particular location are not currently included in the notebook. It will detect the type of connection environment that exists and determine what configuration data is needed to make the connection back to the network.

Using Bluetooth, infrared, or IEEE 802.11x, the system can determine what configuration data is needed by "asking a neighboring PC" for the proper connection data, according to Michael Vanover, architect/visionary for the Personal Systems Group in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

Polling a near-by PC happens without interruption to either system and without user intervention.

"One PC might be asking for the socket connection from the other," Vanover said.

If all else fails and another local PC cannot supply the configuration information, the system will send a message telling the user what piece of data is still required, such as a WEP (Wireless Encryption Protocol) key for access to a wireless network, or whether there is a problem connecting due to a downed router, for example.

For IBM, Autonomic Computing appears to be more a concept than any one particular technology. While the goal is always the same -- self-healing systems that do not require user intervention -- there are in fact numerous technologies that accomplish this concept.

Instant Connect uses wireless to poll and retrieve needed information.

Another autonomic solution on the 2003 or beyond roadmap is an upgrade to IBM's current Wireless Security Auditor called Distributed Wireless Security Auditor (DWSA), which uses an entirely different kind of technology to achieve its goal.

Security Auditor is a handheld device with Wi-Fi that allows a network administrator to walk through a building to find rogue access points.

According to one IBM executive, cheap access points brought in to a campus by employees are a bigger threat to security than a hacker overcoming authentication protocols or deciphering cryptographic keys, said Ron Sperano, program director for Mobile Market Development at IBM.

Walking around a campus with thousands of access points and rechecking on a daily or weekly basis is a huge undertaking. DWSA allows every device with Wi-Fi capability to send information back on a predetermined time schedule to a central server with a report on what access points it sees and the signal strength of each. Instead of an administrator walking the halls, the information is supplied by the current Wi-Fi clients and aggregated in Tivoli Risk Manager, said Vanover.

"It could gather the information from 10,000 PCs every half hour," he said.

Using triangulation, because many PCs are identifying the same rogue access point, the system can locate the AP within four feet. If a floor plan was overlaid on top of the coordinates, the administrator would easily identify which employee set up an unauthorized network.

While interesting, Vanover did not call this capability autonomic but rather saved the term for the next version of DWSA.

"In the future the administrator could take over the rogue access point and convert it to be a good access point," Vanover said with a smile.

Finally, IBM unveiled Client Rescue and Recovery, an upgrade to its current recovery system that allows users to return to a previous state in case of a crash by simply depressing the F11 key on a ThinkPad.

The new version, for which no time frame was given, creates a separate environment outside of Windows. If a hard disk crashes and there are no other alternative media, the system will boot into Random Access Memory and from there connect a user to his or her help desk or anywhere on the network they might need to go.

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