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Can we really make Autonomic Network systems succeed?

The real world is uncertain. Thats a given. Our networks, at their most fundamental, carry the real world from one point to another and therefore by definition carry that uncertainty during every moment they operate. Any autonomic system which seeks to properly manage our networks faces this challenge of pervasive uncertainty. They will always be constructed around that dichotomy of bringing order to chaos by applying their adaptive techniques to create order from chaos. If we map too much of that adaptation into the systems, they become cumbersome and unwieldy. We therefore need to smooth the chaos curve in order to drive autonomic systems design in a direction that will maintain their efficacy. How might we do this? Read on for our thoughts.

We are currently engaged in a conflict with the increasingly complex systems we seek to create which we are losing. Things may have become easier for the end user(arguably), but these systems which provide the end user more simplicity mask a corresponding increase in the the complexity of the underlying systems which support them. This affects the economics of viability of new developments in the marketplace and actually makes some of them non-viable. This situation forces us into choices that we cannot make on an informed basis and our decisions may end up fossilising parts of the network so that future development becomes uneconomic or infeasible.

In principle, autonomic network systems are founded on the principle that we need to reduce the variability that passes from the environment to the network and its applications. In latter years, many companies including Rustyice Solutions have brought products to the market that simplify the management of networks by offering levels of abstraction which make configuration easier and allow the network to heal itself  on occasion. These products tend to smooth the chaos curve and increase the reliability of the systems without the involvement of a low level re-inspection of the systems themselves. They do this by integrating the available information from different semantic levels and leveraging it to give the systems a more holistic view from which to consider the operational status of themselves.

Lets consider what we expect of an autonomic system. It can be defined in terms of a simple feedback loop which comprises information gathering, analysis, decision making and taking action. If the system is working properly then this feedback loop will achieve and maintain balance. Examining these elements one by one, information gathering can come from network management platforms which talk to the discrete nework components on many levels as well as environmental and application based alerts. Analysis can mean such activities as applying rules and policies to the gathered information. Decision making is the application of the analysis against the rules and policies to determine whether or not they meet the conditions set out in the policies and taking action could involve adjusting network loads on managed elements and potentially informing humans who need to take some form of action. These are the fundamental terms with which we seek to understand any requirement from any of our own customers.

This sounds fine in theory but what do we need to understand in order to make it work? The network is currently modelled on a layer based concept where each of the layers has a distinct job to do and talks only to its neighbour layers as well as its corresponding layer at the distant end of the communications link. This model has served us well and brings many distinct advantages including hardware and software compatibility and interoperability, international compatibility, inter layer independence and error containment. It does however carry some disadvantages with it too and most significant of those in terms of this discussion is that of the lack of awareness at any point in the system of the metadata which is why we have the networked systems in the first place. The question of whether the network is doing what it is needed to do at the holistic level is something which no discrete layer ever asks, nor should it. It almost comes down to a division between the analogue concerns of the real world versus the digital, yes/no, abilities of the systems themselves.

Taking this discussion a step further we need to improve our ability to ascribe the real world requirements which are the reasons these networks exist and why we build them to the systems which we intend should be capable of making decisions about whether the systems are working or not. Can these systems really know whether or not the loss of a certain percentage of the packets in a data-stream originating on the netflix servers will impact the enjoyability of somebody watching the on demand movie they have paid for. From a higher perspective, the question becomes whether we can really design autonomic decision making systems that could understand the criteria the real world applies to the efficacy of the network and base their decisions on that finding. They also need to be aware of the impact any decisions they make will have on the efficacy of any other concurrent real world requirements.

There are many mathematical abstractions which seek to model this scenario in order to predict and design the autonomic behaviours we require of our systems and you will be relieved to read that we do not propose to go into those here. In principle however we need to move towards a universal theory of autonomic behaviour. We need to find an analytic framework that facilitates a conceptual decision making model relating to what we actually want from the network. We need to couple this with an open decision making mechanism along the lines of UML in order for us to fold in the benefits of new techniques as they develop and ultimately we need to be able to build these ideas directly into programming languages such that they better reflect the real world systems we want on a higher level of abstraction.

In conclusion, we can say that autonomics is a multi level subject and we need to take account of these different semantic levels. We need to build an assumed level of uncertainty into our programming in order to maximise our ability to engineer autonomic systems and we need to develop standards in order to further enable the capability of our systems in this area. These are the fundamental points which we at Rustyice Solutions begin any discussion with respect to network management and more especially autonomic networking such as WAN acceleration. If you or your business are interested in examining this topic in more detail with a view to enhancing the value which your network brings to the table why not give us a call. We look forward to hearing from you.

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