IBM unveils self-healing tools

IBM moved closer to achieving its vision of self-healing, self-configuring systems last week with the unveiling of three autonomic computing software modules.

The modules are designed to predict and respond to sudden increases in data center workloads. The Adaptive Forecasting module uses mathematical models to anticipate the progression of an unexpected surge in demand. The Online Capacity Planning module estimates the resources required to maintain service-level targets during peaks and allows a hot swap of resources from one workload to another. The Rapid Reconfiguration piece uses new capabilities in WebSphere Application Server 5.0 to add and remove nodes as resource demands fluctuate.

While IBM Corp. has announced dynamic provisioning tools in the past, what makes this software different is its forecasting abilities, says Alan Ganek, vice president of autonomic computing. The software will start to deploy equipment ahead of data center requirements.

"Obviously, you can't tell in advance when a surge is going to happen," Ganek says. "But when the workload starts to come in, we can gauge a signature of what it looks like. And using modeling and probabilistic methods, we can get a sense of its trajectory."

IBM has existing forecasting tools that can prepare for predictable spikes, such as seasonal traffic bursts. But dealing with the unexpected requires something more sophisticated, says Joe Hellerstein, manager of the adaptive systems department at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center.

When workloads deviate significantly from what is expected, IBM's new adaptive forecaster kicks in and starts tracking how things are changing. This short-term forecaster allows the system to get ahead of the surge, see that more server power will be needed in another minute, for example, and make requests before service levels degrade, Hellerstein says. Similarly, as the surge begins to dissipate, the tools can release resources earlier to conserve costs, he says.

Jeff Wenger, vice president and CTO at Tax Technologies Inc. in Haworth, N.J., says his company does its own forecasting but would welcome any tools that could help better predict shifting workloads as its business increases.

"Last year we ended up using less than 10 percent of our available horsepower," Wenger says. "If we were more comfortable with our forecasting, we wouldn't have to overprovision as much."

IBM Global Services hosts Tax Technologies' Web-based tax and financial reporting software. The idea of some day shifting to pay-as-you-go service model, with capacity managed by IBM's autonomic technologies, is appealing to Tax Technologies, which experiences its biggest volumes during the first two weeks of September.

"In our industry, we could require 10 times the horsepower for two weeks out of the year," Wenger says. "If we didn't have to acquire 10 times the equipment and pay for it the whole year, that would be a good thing."

The three new tools are not available as packaged software products, but IBM Global Services will add the new technologies to its services. On the product front, IBM is "actively working to inject this technology into a variety of our offerings," Ganek says.

IBM has publicly pursued autonomic computing since announcing its eLiza initiative in 2001; it formed a dedicated autonomic computing division headed by Ganek in October.

As IT systems become more complex, autonomic capabilities can absorb some of the management burden and free up IT staff to focus on other tasks, Ganek says. Autonomic technology will yield more effective resource utilization and increase reliability, he says.

"Today, about 40 percent of major system outages are due to operator error," Ganek says. "Automating system configuration changes is a good way to avoid those kinds of problems."

Analysts have debated whether companies are ready for autonomic computing and the relinquishing of control that goes along with it. At healthcare services provider Sutter Health, network professionals are coming around to the idea.

"This will be an evolution for support personnel as well as the technology," says Mark Dynes, who manages the enterprise systems management department at Sutter Health IT in Sacramento, Calif. His company has started automation efforts and begun researching a new autonomic-enabled version of IBM's Tivoli Monitoring software.

"It is a slow process for identifying items that staff is willing to release control of," Dynes says.

IBM will demonstrate its new autonomic computing tools at the upcoming CeBIT show in Germany.

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