IBM Technologist Sees Convergence of Biology and IT
NEW YORK — Nicholas N. Donofrio, senior vice president of technology and marketing at IBM Corp., told a group of IT professionals at TechXNY on Tuesday (June 25) to brush up on their biology if they expect to ride the next wave of technology innovation. "For 30 years, we've been talking about all kinds of convergence of technologies, but none will be as profound as the upcoming convergence of IT and biology," Donofrio said in his keynote address here.
The boundary between biology and information sciences will come down gradually, said Donofrio, who called himself a "classic geek" who loves technology but doesn't see technological changes as revolutionary. "The PC did not wipe out the mainframe," said the 35-year IBM EE veteran. "Thank God, the new economy did not erase the old economy, and biotech is not going to take over the world. But we need to be ready to catch that ride."
Donofrio grants another decade to the continuing advances in silicon technology, which have yielded improvements of six orders of magnitude in the last three decades. He maintained, however, that system and network complexity makes it mandatory to investigate other scientific fields, where integration is simple by design.
"Take a look at our bodies," he told the sparsely attended conference. "We don't consciously think about the work of our muscles or the oxygen we need for our lungs — all our body parts work quietly in the background, continuously programming and reconfiguring themselves to get the job done."
With "managing complexity" the biggest challenge facing the tech industry, "we can learn a lot from biological systems to apply to our man-made systems," said Donofrio. He mentioned the ongoing Grid distributed-computing effort inside IBM and in collaboration with industry and academic partners as means to deal with that complexity. "A new computing model is emerging where a self-managed, autonomic system reconfigures on the fly to meet the demands of the moment," said Donofrio.
IBM is basing its "autonomic-computing" effort on the example of automation in nature. According to the company's literature, implementing autonomic computing will require the participation of thinkers and businesses throughout the industry. "The radical nature of the autonomic-computing solution has implications for the way we conceive, design, manage and maintain technology at myriad and layered levels, placing it far beyond the domain of any one company," IBM said in a TechXNY handout.
Donofrio reiterated that sentiment, warning that if the industry does not tame the complexity brought on by the Internet and all the networks and systems tied to it, IT productivity gains will never materialize. "We are spending three times the cost to manage systems that we are for building them," he said. "We need self-managing systems that can fix themselves, and we can learn a lot about that from biology."
As one of the first steps toward managing complexity, Donofrio called on his audience to support Linux as a common open-standard operating system for all applications that pervade wired and wireless world. "Linux is as important for applications as the Internet was for communications," he said. "Next, we need to take a holistic approach to generate better and smarter solutions, not faster, cheaper and smaller systems."
With common standards as the means and self-healing systems as the goal, Donofrio foresees a world of on-demand computing where users just "plug in" to a network to get what they need to run their business. In this model, the needs of IT infrastructure are completely transparent to users.
"We can learn a lot from the biological world [in terms] of how operations work in the background and only their results are manifested on the outside," Donofrio said. "I, for one, look forward to the eventual loosening of boundary between the natural and the mechanical worlds."