Sunday, January 16, 2011

Automatons, Organisms, and Teenagers

Wouldn't it be great if you could tell your child exactly what to do in a given situation and be completely confident he or she would do just that, every time, without question? If you've ever raised a teenager, I promise you've wished for that before. But would it really be all that great?
Yes, we could, theoretically, help our kids avoid many of the mistakes that we made growing up. On the other hand, they could never be better than us. It turns out, all the pleasures and pains of child rearing stem from the unexpected, emergent behavior of our children. Thank goodness kids are organisms, not automatons.
My software team and I at Caringo, Inc. are raising our own child, named CAStor -- a symmetrically distributed, massively scalable, clustered storage system. CAStor is not quite a teenager yet, but already I'm getting questions from customers and partners.
"Why does it behave this way in that situation?" they ask. To which I'm often forced to answer simply, "I don't know."
When the behavior in question results in a positive outcome (which it frequently does), they wonder why I don't take credit for it. After all, CAStor is a computer program, a digital automaton, and we programmed the darned thing. How could we not know why it behaves the way it does?
The answer is, computers may be automatons, but computer networks are organisms.
In the past two decades, we have seen the emergence of a whole new class of application and infrastructure software. Scalable, robust, distributed solutions capable of handling hundreds of millions of users, perform billions of transactions, store and retrieve millions of gigabytes, and maintain high availability despite hardware failures, software upgrades, and malicious attacks. Those of us who design and architect such solutions understand (sometimes) there is a qualitative difference between these organic, adaptive computer networks and the "do this now" sort of programs we learned to write in school.
This blog is about the practical potential and limitations of distributed computing, the trade-offs between determinism and probability, certainty and surprise. Along the way, I hope we'll explore all kinds of topics, from space photography to train tracks, thermodynamics to wine glasses, the meaning of knowledge, randomness, and time.

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