Principles for Managing Evolving Computing Systems

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. 

lulea-networkServers 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. It 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 called Mirai, 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:

These principles are not independent; they are 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 computing.

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 story.


Evolution of Computing -- Last revised 6/26/2018