IBM's Project eLiza aims at self-managing servers

Called Project eLiza, the project is believed to be the most ambitious and wide-ranging of its sort, encompassing technologies from chips to complex middleware applications.

The development effort involves hundreds of programmers from IBM's Research Division spread around the world now working in lockstep with IBM's three major server groups. Those servers span the company's largest proprietary mainframes to its lowest-end servers.

Jonathan Eunice, principal analyst and IT advisor for Illuminata, in Nashua, N.H., said: "We are talking about between 25 percent and 50 percent of the server group's budget being spent on this, so there has been nothing like this before in terms of comparable scale.''While companies such as Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard have attempted similar initiatives, Eunice argues no other company has had the same degree of focus.

"The vision here is not unique, but [with] the amount of resources they can plow into this and the amount of intellectual property they bring to bear, IBM is doing something unique," Eunice said.

IBM's research division, together with a new group formed to help coordinate the design and development efforts, intends to deliver a steady stream of server-based hardware and software products to help large IT shops lower their costs of ownership and ease the burden of finding or training qualified personnel.

"Customers, like those in our Advanced e-Business Council, have been telling us that to cope with all the coming technology and data volumes they will have to absorb over the next few years, it is mandatory that we build self-managing capabilities into the systems we sell them," said Irving Wladawsky-Berger, IBM's vice president of Technology and Strategy in Somers, N.Y.

Some industry observers believe the vision of Project eLiza is a good and even necessary one, given the large wave of complex hardware, software, and communications technologies cascading towards major IT shops.

"As the cost of hardware becomes a non-issue in the overall equation and the cost of skills rises over the next few years, the more vendors can do to make managing systems easier and to lower the cost of their ownership the better,'' said Tom Bittman, senior analyst with the GartnerGroup in Stamford, Conn.

But Bittman and others, while encouraged by IBM's aggressive approach toward these problems, wonder about IBM's ability to crisply execute on this vision. Big Blue has had a less than stellar track record in being able to bridge visions and deliverables.

"I am excited about this [Project eLiza] because here is a vendor with deep pockets making a serious commitment to this. But whether they can execute it in a reasonable period of time is another question," Bittman said.

Still, the announcement caught the interest of many corporate users, who for some time have headed their wish lists with lowered ownership costs and finding skilled technical workers.

"Anything -- and I mean anything -- the IBMs of the world can do to automate plumbing sorts of things, so we can focus or refocus higher skilled people on more important aspects of the business, is welcomed with both arms," said Joe Patterson, an IT executive with a large insurance company in Omaha, Neb. "But just let me know when I can get it."

With many existing infrastructure and server concerns eliminated, other users believe the initiative could allow them to devote more time to developing mission-critical e-business applications that sit on top of such infrastructure, cutting down the backlog of internally developed applications, and generally solving other business problems.

IBM officials also believe a highly automated infrastructure will allow IT organizations to make decisions on other matters faster and to grow their organizations using, in most cases, the same number of people they have now.

"The result is IT's productivity should rise because they can more quickly connect devices, [and] add faster Web and distributed servers and storage with the same number of people," Wladawsky-Berger said.

The initiative has the strong backing of IBM Chairman Lou Gerstner, who, in a couple of speeches earlier this year, made it clear he believes it is the delivery of more robust "infrastructure and integration" that will drive the Internet to its next level. He believes it is this next generation of products that will allow corporate users to manifest the vision and promise of e-business.

In an internal memo to IBM employees earlier this week outlining Project eLiza, Bill Zeitler, head of IBM's eServer group, said he expects hundreds of millions of people to be connected to the Web through mobile devices helping drive trillions of transactions. This sort of traffic, an increasing amount of which is taking the form of voice and video, could put cracks even in today's sturdiest of infrastructures.

"The objective of this [project] is to give users the power to manage environments that are hundreds of times more complex and broadly distributed than the ones we see today," Zeitler wrote. "This initiative is probably the most challenging we have undertaken."

Offering an example of some of the work now ongoing in IBM Research, both Zeitler and Wladawsky-Berger cited Project Oceano. That project, now a working prototype, is essentially a server farm that manages itself.

Oceano servers can be taken online and offline to intelligently meet constantly changing demands from operating systems and data. They are also able to diagnose problems and take the necessary steps to fix those problems, all without human intervention.

IBM will first focus its self-managing, self-healing technologies on hardware systems, operating systems, and micro code, according to Wladawsky-Berger, and then move to storage products and its key middleware applications including MQSeries, CICS, and Tivoli.

"The first focus is on the server organization but it will quickly spill over to storage products and middleware. There is a lot of things we can do with Tivoli, for instance," Wladawsky-Berger said.

Offering one example of how IBM might build self-healing features into its chips, Wladawsky-Berger said the company will soon be able to build in redundant circuitry. The job of those added circuits is to monitor all activity going on inside a chip and then take corrective actions if a part of the chip fails.

"As chip companies add more and more circuits to carry out more sophisticated functions, it is only reasonable to expect redundant capabilities to be added," Wladawsky-Berger said.

The new unit, formed to help coordinate the design and development efforts among IBM Rsearch's far-flung labs and the server products groups, will be headed by Tony Befi and Rick Baum. Both will report to Ross Mauri, who is in charge of eServer development.

Overseeing project coordination and marketing is Greg Burke, who will be responsible for setting specific goals for the teams and working with the 40-member Advanced eBusiness Council for tracking progress on various development projects.

"Ultimately, it is the Advanced [eBusiness] Council, which is made up of some very leading-edge customers, that is driving this forward. They will help us decide on why something is important," Burke said.

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