Principles for Managing Evolving Computing
Computers collaborate in the Internet
much the way cells collaborate in multicellular organisms and
the way organisms compete and collaborate in ecologies. What are
the parallels and what can we learn from them?
Single cell organisms evolved into multicellular organisms
long ago. Today we are seeing a similar transition in
computing. Thirty years ago few computers communicated
directly with others. Now hundreds of millions of computers
exchange information at Internet speeds. The role that computers
play in the world has changed dramatically as their costs
dropped and their numbers exploded. They entertain us, help us
shop, help us communicate with and befriend each other, and act
as our memories. Some now talk with us. As the digital
world inexorably becomes more complex it encounters problems
common to all complex systems – problems already solved in the
evolution of living systems. This website explores the
challenges of increasing complexity and some architectural
solutions for the problems inherent in complex systems.
Twenty five years ago most computers operated independently from
each other. A few exchanged primitive email or used FTP-like tools
over phone lines with primitive modems to transfer files. Some
collaborated in client-server relationships with internal
corporate networks, banking systems or airline reservation
systems. In 1992 a tiny number of computers in universities or
research labs were connected together to form a persistent network
which grew into the nascent Web. Nonetheless, for several years
after the origins of the Internet, most computing continued to be
done by single disconnected computers. That is no longer true.
Today an isolated computer is an oddity. At least a billion
computers exchange information at Internet speeds. Huge "clouds"
of them communicate only with each other! Google, Amazon, Yahoo,
Baidu (China's Google equivalent) and many other less well-known
organizations spider, crawl, and catalog the Web constantly.
Computers surround us. They are in our pockets or purses, are on
our wrists and in our cars, houses and offices.
are a different story. Hundreds of thousands of them
collaborate together in Facebook, Google, and other server-farms
to provide services on our laptops, iPads or iPhones (see photo
from Facebook's data center in Lulea, Sweden). The digital world
inexorably becomes complex beyond our comprehension
records our emails, phone calls, eCommerce purchases, searches and
social media interactions. It trolls our Facebook pages and
blogs for hints to our opinions and even for the identity of those
that appear in photos on our social media pages. But there
is no going back. These "personal computers" communicate with
servers at data centers owned by Facebook, Google, Amazon, Baidu,
IBM, Switch, Microsoft, Twitter, the NSA and many others. It
is estimated that there are more than half a million data centers
world-wide containing hundreds of millions of servers cataloging,
storing, and regurgitating all sorts of information.
Yet it is not server farms and personal computers that most
cause problems for the Internet; it is the Internet
of Things (IoT). The IoT is comprised of a wide
variety of small, silent, Internet-connect processors such as
smart door locks for the home, smart electric plugs, smart A/C
and heater vents, smart thermostats and wearable exercise
monitors. Collectively they use and provide more compute
power and wifi capability than we could have imagined a few
years ago. "The number of IoT devices increased 31%
year-over-year to 8.4 billion in 2017 and it is estimated that
there will be 30 billion devices by 2020" (from Wikipedia link
above). And the fundamental reason they are problematic is
that they are poorly protected from hackers and
"bot-herders". They typically come with simple default
passwords and all too many people see no reason to change the
passwords, or if they do change the defaults, the new passwords
are all too often simple easy to guess passwords too. So
the hackers who seek to create large bot-nets out of IoT devices
find it easy to do. On October 12, 2016, a new botnet appeared
which "nearly took down the Internet". And the code for it
was put out on the net. In January 2018, a Mirai variant
called iTroop or Reaper was used to target three
large Financial institutions. As we will discuss in
the pages on Apoptosis (see below), IoT botnets can best be
thought of as Internet cancers. And the net is poorly
protected against such cancers because the architecture of
computers has not adapted to the modern challenges.
The evolution of computing is similar to the evolution of other
complex systems -- biological, social, ecological, and economic
systems. In each of these domains, the elements become
increasingly more specialized and sophisticated, and they
interact with each other in ever more complex ways. From that
perspective, the similarities
between biology and computing are not coincidental.
Multicellular computing already is adopting four major
organizing principles of multicellular biological systems
because they help tame the spiraling problems of complexity and
out-of-control interactions in the Internet. They are:
- Multicellular systems support much richer functionality than
single cell and single computer systems. They do it by the
collaboration between specialized cells. There are, for
example, about 250 specialized types of cells in humans.
Unspecialized cells such as many cancer cells are dangerous
because they don't "play well with others."
Specialization in computing is important for similar
reasons. We are finding that unspecialized general-purpose
computers, especially unprotected PCs, are increasingly
dangerous to multicellular computing systems.
- Cooperating cells or computers must communicate safely with
one another. The "meaning"
of cell-to-cell messages must be determined by the receiving
cell, not the sender. To that end, cells communicate
with each other via messenger molecules, never DNA. Similarly,
communication between computers in multicellular systems
relies increasingly upon message
passing. Here again, the receiver not the sender
determines the meaning of the messages. It is especially
dangerous for computers to transfer code from one machine to
another precisely because code predetermines the resulting
behavior of the receiving machine, and all too often contains
malware. Code endangers the health of the receiving machine
and hence the larger system of which it is a part.
- Messages orchestrate cooperation in real-time. Longer term
or more persistent collaboration requires longer-lived
messages that can be deposited in some structure where they
can be later encountered by others. This sort of messaging has
become known if the field of biology as stigmergy.
Analogously, stigmergy in
computing systems is supported by persistent external
data, e.g., in databases, and network connectivity structures.
Persistent data are especially important for organizing cooperative
computing in the Internet.
Apoptosis (Programmed cell death) - Despite all
precautions, cells and computers do go awry. They may also
simply outlive their usefulness, Every healthy cell in a
multicellular organism is programmed to commit suicide if
their removal is in the best interest of the organism as a
whole. Cells that are infected by viruses or become cancerous
usually kill themselves unless the programmed cell death
mechanism itself is compromised. We are only recently learning
the importance of sacrificing
compromised computers for the health of the whole
multicellular computing system. The recent appearance of
the Internet of Things (IoT) and botnets exploiting IoT
These principles are not independent;
deeply intertwined both in life and in computing.
This site explores these principles in considerable detail --
more detail than most readers would want to absorb in one
sitting. It presents each principle in its biological context
and describes its benefits both for multicellular life and for
If you are impatient, you might want to skip right to the end
of the story and read the conclusions.
However, as with many a mystery novel, reading the last few
pages will tell you who-done-it without telling you the most
interesting part...why. The conclusions may well not make much
sense without seeing how we get there.
The site map can help navigate to
the various pages in an order that helps make sense of the
Evolution of Computing -- Last revised 6/26/2018