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Startup brings telecom self-heal concept to computing

Large computer vendors, like IBM and Microsoft, all have plans to make their systems more manageable with less intervention. Now, a Canadian startup company is bringing a technique used in self-healing telecommunications networks to the world of systems management.

The big systems management vendors are all building self-healing platforms, but a Canadian startup is introducing technology that aims to make systems management just as invisibly dependable as plain old telephone service.

Vendors such as autonomic computer pioneer IBM, as well as Hewlett-Packard Co., Microsoft and others are developing software to proactively manage, diagnose and heal systems management programs in hopes of controlling rising computer maintenance costs. IT departments have increasing workloads but have the same number of workers, or fewer, to get their jobs done.

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By offloading some tasks, particularly repetitious ones, IT shops can run more efficiently, as IT administrators can focus their time on more strategic endeavors. By fixing systems without human intervention, there is also less computer downtime. Embotics, a company based in Ottawa, Canada, has an ambitious goal: wiping out the computer downtime caused by management activities, thus rendering a system as reliable as phone service.

"You pick up your phone and automatically have a dial tone. It never seems to go down," said Jay Litkey, Embotics founder, president and chief executive officer. "We decided why not borrow principles and technology from an industry that solved these problems, like reliability, decades ago?"

Embotics borrows the telephony concept of separating management and service functions instead of the usual computer systems designed with hardware, operating systems, applications and management agents stacked as one, Litkey said. The company's autonomous technology is placed in a separate management plane either through software that is embedded on a remote management card or by using a software-only virtual environment.

In addition to separating the management and service functions, Embotics also developed "embots" -- embedded computer applications that run all the time and respond to changes in the system, fixing problems as needed. The embots have approval to do certain tasks, but would have to check with IT about expanding to more extensive tasks when they were identified. Until IT managers felt they could trust the products with more work, Litkey said, that would be the way it works.

Sharing the data through WS_Management standards

The Embotics software supports WS-Management standards for external communications as well as Microsoft's Operations Manager, IBM's Tivoli and other server management consoles. WS-Management is a Web-based, universal software language that lets all sorts of devices share their data so they can be more easily managed. WS-Management was developed jointly by about a dozen companies, including Microsoft and Sun Microsystems, several years ago.

Embotics has formed a partnership with Raritan Inc., a Somerset, N.J., systems management software vendor, by embedding Embotics software on a Raritan Open Platform Management Architecture card. It has also joined forces with Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) Inc., the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based chip maker, by allowing Embotics software to run with AMD's virtualization chip.

"It's a known fact in the industry that IT maintenance costs for the systems they're deploying can be more than the cost of the actual systems," said Lars Ewe, an AMD enterprise software strategist. "Autonomics, such as Embotics', can really lower the total costs of that maintenance."

AMD is working closely with Embotics as it develops its products. Right now, Embotics has a pilot program running at a number of large companies. Litkey declined to name the companies until the program is finished, which will probably be at the end of the year.

"They've adopted a technology that worked well decades ago and made telephony as reliable as it is -- operating in a separate management plane that is distinct from your service plane," said Rich Ptak, an analyst with Ptak, Noel & Associates, in Amherst, N.H., which researches converging IT trends. Hooking up with a large player such as AMD will help Embotics' technology become adopted more quickly, Ptak said.

Developing products with autonomic computing abilities is just one avenue in which AMD is looking to provide enterprise customers with what they need, Ewe said. While autonomics is a good first defense, he said, there are other technologies designed to help IT managers make their time more efficient, such as informatics, where the system finds and disables malware before it causes damage. It also would operate from a separate management plane, as does the autonomic technology, Ewe said.

Microsoft also sees a future for self-diagnosing and self-healing computers, said Manish Kalra, a product manager for Systems Management Server, Microsoft's desktop management platform, while discussing future iterations of SMS. Kalra said Microsoft intends to develop more and more embedded capabilities in systems so the systems can analyze, diagnose and fix things themselves without the help of IT workers.

"Everybody in IT knows there is way too much work to do in maintaining systems, especially if some of the work is done manually," Litkey said. "These systems are far too complex. We think we've solved an age-old problem in quite a good way."

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