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Previewing 'smart' systems, part 2

Although full-fledged self-healing systems are still years away, there are some products and services that can help customers get started down that path today.

IBM has been working in this area longer than any other major vendor, but Sun, Hewlett-Packard and now Microsoft are hot on Big Blue's heels. Frank Gillett, a Forrester Research analyst who follows this area closely, says that, for his money, "HP has a better product set at the moment" than just about anyone else, although "IBM has a great vision and good future."

Still, he says, "IBM, HP and Sun are the only ones who have enough elements" -- both hardware and software -- to even begin pulling off something as complex as self-managing and self-healing data center technology.

In Sun's case, the initiative is called N1, and it's intended to allow all the elements in a data center -- servers, storage, software and networking -- to be aggregated and managed as one. N1 will also incorporate other vendors' computing platforms, eventually. To date, N1 has primarily been focused on servers. In February, the company unveiled the N1 Provisioning Server 3.0 Blades Edition, which helps customers design, configure, provision and scale blade-based logical server farms automatically. It can reprovision blades from one server farm to another, add new blades, shelves and racks, and bring new blades online to replace those that failed. The software currently supports Solaris only, but it will

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eventually include Linux support and features for reprovisioning other types of servers.

Sun has said there are three phases in its N1 delivery road map: virtualization, services provisioning and policy automation. The company is currently in the virtualization phase, with products that will address the need to aggregate individual systems into a pool of resources. In the services provisioning phase, administrators will specify the business definition for a service -- such as e-banking -- and N1 will provision the resources required for this service. In the final phase, policy automation, application levels will be automatically maintained by N1. Policies are used to manage applications and their required resources.

HP's initiative is called Adaptive Infrastructure, and it is based on its OpenView systems management software. HP is adding extensions that automatically and dynamically respond to changing business conditions. One such extension is the Utility Data Center software, which aggregates, virtualizes and dynamically allocates resources -- including servers, networks and storage -- within one or more data centers.

At IBM, self-managing and self-healing pieces are coming from many divisions. The company has very specific definitions for what all this means, from a system that knows itself and all its components to one that can reconfigure itself under varying conditions, to one that anticipates needs while keeping complexity hidden.

Current products that meet at least some of these definitions include the e-Server z900 and z/OS, which allow the servers to automatically reallocate processing power to a given application on the fly, based on the system's current workload demands. Other software along these lines is available from Tivoli, IBM's systems management arm, which offers products like Storage Manager and Software Distribution. Version 8 of DB2 has a configuration adviser that takes input from a database administrator and then turns that into about 100 tuning parameters.

One of IBM's particular challenges is implementing these kinds of capabilities in all of its thousands of products in an orchestrated way. The company is trying to do just that under the auspices of its autonomic computing division. "We look at core technologies that are important to aggregated behavior, so all the pieces work together in a coordinated way," explains Miles Barel, program director of autonomic computing at IBM. And the company is beginning to do just that, with Version 5 of WebSphere, for instance, which can drive the DB2 configuration adviser described above.

Enter Microsoft. Through its Dynamic Systems Initiative (DSI), its focus is on helping third-party vendors create "operationally aware" applications that understand the relationship of all their components and then take an "active role" in their own management in a production environment, a spokeswoman said.

DSI is a "multi-year" project, with deliverables scheduled from Windows Server 2003 to Blackcomb, a Windows release scheduled for a few years from now. Within DSI is System Center, a systems management platform that will provide change and configuration management, asset management and capacity planning, among other things.

"Over time," Microsoft will extend its System Definition Model -- an XML-based blueprint -- to include non-Windows platforms, the spokeswoman said.

Self-managing systems, whatever they're called, are clearly a long-term endeavor. And although it will take years to realize their full potential, even nascent features and functions can help stressed-out IT staffers.

"Anything that vendors can do to make their equipment more aware of the computing situation, integrate management tools and reach out beyond their specific servers or switches -- that's all goodness for the market," says Jon Oltsik, founder of Hype-Free Consulting, in Acton, Mass. "It will lower customers' operating costs and make processes more efficient. But it will take time."

>> Read part one of this article.

MORE ON THIS TOPIC:

>> With autonomic computing, start small

>> IBM offers details on autonomic software

This was first published in April 2003

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