Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Autonomous computing; tempting, but we still need input from a good design!

The story lines may take unexpected twists and turns but the enthusiasm for NonStop remains straight and true. For me, there’s much that we can discuss about NonStop but the design of NonStop? Well, with NonStop X, it’s as modern a computer as anything in the marketplace today!


For the first post of my ninth year of blogging I would be hard pressed to start with anything other than yet another metaphor derived from the auto industry. It has to do with self-driving vehicles – an abomination, from my perspective, and something that would give me pause to reconsider whether I would like to continue driving at all. No, I am not even tempted to go down this path, no matter what the signs might suggest! Even now I cause some discomfort among my friends whenever I criticize a popular vehicle solely on the basis of it providing very little driver feedback – don’t you want to be aware of the conditions of the road you have chosen to drive down? Can’t you sense the input the car is providing and doesn’t that just add to the enjoyment that comes with driving?

Readers of my posts to this NonStop community blog will also recall that the associations I draw from the world of automobiles and computers are not only frequent, but something we sometimes don’t see on first glance. Who would have thought writing about the C6 Corvette having its exhaust system improved for better performance, as was noted in the September 2, 2008, post Blood and corpses everywhere! Really? (and yes, check out the picture used) would then segue to where  I said that there’s no emerging social discontent with computing that has chip manufacturers planning some voluntarily limits to their performance. Virtualization will be part of the new landscape on NonStop.

But again, connecting the dots between exhaust manifolds and extractors to virtualization is what keeps readers thinking about what comes next and so it was that this morning I read an interesting exchange in an interview published in the September, 2015, issue of Road and Track. While this is one of the publications from which I draw inspiration it was an interview with McLaren’s design chief, Frank Stephenson, that caught my attention – and yes, at a time when the pundits are working overtime to extol what the future of computer manufacturers is with automobiles, as anyone invested in the likes of Google and Apple can attest.

When Stephenson was asked about autonomous driving and whether it has a place at McLaren, his response wasn’t unexpected. “Autonomous driving is the last thing you want from a sports car, but imagine a track day,” Stephenson responded. “The car knows the best line, the speed, the gears. It teaches you in those first few laps. You’re feeling the input from the car. After five laps, you can give it a go yourself.” Of course, this could be expected from a designer of one of the world’s finest supercars even as it renews its presence racing in Formula 1. But applying what we are watching other auto manufacturers are developing in support of autonomous driving to teaching us to be much better drivers, now that’s something I can work with.

When it comes to IT and data centers much of what I have been writing about of late has to do with the evolutionary steps being taken by companies building monitoring solutions. As the designers of today’s computers pull together mostly industry standard components and subassemblies, there’s little to differentiate one system from another and yet, as we move a little further up the stack and away from the bare metal, industry standard together with open software allow the computer designers a lot of free play when it comes to exploiting the benefits provided by the common architectures. At a time when some industry analysts still question the need for NonStop as they overlook just how modern NonStop has become, up and down these hardware and software stacks, things just fail.

However, as we look out further in to the future at what computer designers are considering building there’s a couple of items that stand out and that, in many ways, play into the hands of NonStop. As previously covered, we are definitely headed towards a software-designed-everything and I have to admit, I am pleased to see the industry headed down this path. But software-designed-everything will lead us to a level of virtualization that many within the NonStop community continue to scratch their heads about – won’t that simply compromise the capacity for NonStop to provide fault tolerance at the highest level?

On the other hand, software-designed-everything coupled with virtualization takes us into the world of self-learning and indeed, eventually, self-healing. Autonomous computing is at hand and for many CIOs, this has become the Holy Grail – whereto the high priced / highly valued systems managers, we will then be asking of ourselves? In times when so many of us are taking a step back from the industry, surely there has to be a demand for our skills as we teach tomorrow’s systems how to learn and heal? Unfortunately, this may not be the case as we head towards a world where a few clever people will lay down the foundations for all systems.

In my discussions with those inside of HP working with software-defined-everything (and no, there’s no product yet so don’t call your HP sales folks just yet), fully virtualized and with the ability to provision for any occasion, what we will see at first is something pretty basic and most likely template based. Given this industry and running this solution, here’s some basic rules to determine when to run an application, where to locate it and give it access to the resources it needs and yes, what to do when something goes wrong. But again, companies building monitoring solutions have already began taking steps along the path to predictability, learning and self-healing. And for good reason – future systems will require a higher level of intelligence to step in at the appropriate time and drive the healing. Completely autonomously and without any operator intervention!

Well, this may fly with some folks in Armonk and along Redwood Shores but for me, even where the computer knows the best time to run an application, the resources the application will require and the steps to take to recover any failed or compromised processes, I would prefer that this was all done initially in kind of a tutorial manner so that after a short period of time, it teaches us rather than dismisses us. Autonomous computer systems will be fine but at some point, it’s still the responsibility of businesses everywhere to know at any point in time what is transpiring on their systems. For NonStop then, this opens the door not only to house the intelligence overarching all that is happening but be the control box for our steering wheel that provides us with the input we need to traverse an increasingly hostile global everything-connected world.

Yes, there is still cause to celebrate good design and as much as the rest of the computer world embraces standards and builds cookie-cutter systems differentiated only on price and perhaps services, NonStop continues to provide value and in a way that is headed in the right direction. NonStop buried within a hypervisor? Why not! NonStop provisioning according to the “availability needs” template / profile? Again, of course! And yes, NonStop as the control box – even as one vendor has begun calling the latest NonStop family, the NonStop X systems, the X Box – allowing us to learn to observe and to step in with all the input needed to steer any desired course.

From the same issue of the same magazine comes the back page article, Driven by Design. Former Vice Chairman of GM and before that, Executive VP at Ford, with just a brief stint at Chrysler long enough, mind you, to bring the Dodge Viper to market. “There aren’t any bad cars anymore. They just don’t exist,” writes Lutz. “The days of seeing a comparison test of four cars where one is the obvious loser are gone, replace by a new age of automotive equality. Reliability, braking, steering, handling, ride, and refinement are all largely on par across automakers and segments. That leaves just one chief differentiator: design.”

Monitoring solutions are only going to get more important over time. But perhaps the attribute that gives these monitoring solutions the option to see it all is that they are running on the box that’s always there, X Box or not. For this to continue, the onus falls on the bevy of designers looking after NonStop systems today and to everyone in the NonStop community, what they do still cannot be replicated – and with that, autonomous computing or otherwise, we truly do have assurances that NonStop has a definitive role to play and I for one, look forward to seeing this role for NonStop eventuate as the designers work to bring us all software-defined-everything!

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