By Jason Palmer
Technology reporter, BBC News
BT hopes future networks will be more autonomous
Insights from artificial life could soon be helping run BT's networks.
The telecommunications firm wants to give its networks life-like abilities so they can self-regulate, recover from injury and respond to changing demands.
BT is keen to use these techniques to make wireless networks more reliable and adaptable and help distribute net-based services.
It unveiled its research at the Artificial Life XI conference taking place in Winchester this week.
At the ALife conference biologists, computer scientists, roboticists, and philosophers are debating ways to borrow ideas from life to either mimic it in hardware or software or create it from scratch.
"If we look at the biological world, there is a huge amount of change, complexity, and adaptation," said former biologist Paul Marrow who works in BT's Broadband Applications Research Centre.
"These artificial life ideas are a very useful source of inspiration as the products and services we provide become increasingly complex and demanding in terms of resources."
One parallel is in the division of labour. The graphical interface users see on their computers is the result of many different kinds of tasks which may include processing, memory storage, encryption, or multimedia content.
In the telecommunications industry, cleanly dividing these different tasks and distributing them across different parts of a network is called "encapsulating" and is analogous to the tasks allocated to different parts of a living cell.
To address this and other issues BT is collaborating with Telecom Italia, universities and research organisations on a project called Cascadas.
This aims to optimise the division of tasks around a network by giving them more autonomy and self-awareness by making them more modular and more applicable to different programs that may call on them. This, it hopes, will make the division of labour more efficient.
Lessons from life look like they will inspire a better way to distribute those different processes. BT hopes to tap the secrets of another of life's defining features called self-organisation - this does away with a single, overarching control for whole systems.
"With self-organisation, you have very simple rules governing individual units that together perform a bigger task—a typical example is ant colonies," said Fabrice Saffre, principal researcher at BT's Pervasive ICT Research Centre.
The simplicity of the rules makes for less computation, and therefore is easier on the network. "It's a very economical solution—especially for problems that are very dynamic. Anything you can do with self-organisation is basically a 'free lunch'," said Dr Saffre.
At Alife XI Dr Saffre's team will demonstrate a biologically inspired program called Embryo, a predecessor of Cascadas, which allows self-organising behaviour among servers in a network. As tasks are allocated among the servers, each analyses its particular load.
Ants can make a nest though none of them are in charge
If a given server is required by too many users for a particular task, it will send out a message to its nearest neighbours in the network to find out which has that application available.
If in turn those neighbours don't have the application, they contact their nearest neighbours, and so on. When a server with the application is found, the task is reallocated.
Each server is independently balancing its load, and only communicating with the servers to which it is directly connected, rather than the network as a whole. The overall effect on the network is called 'load balancing': a fair and even distribution of tasks network-wide—even though there is no overall control.
Moreover, Dr Marrow said, the approach is more robust to failures. "If you were to have a rigid control system that depended on a fixed set of rules, that could fall apart if any part of the network is lost."
Dr Saffre is collaborating with academics at the University of Sheffield to develop this kind of fault tolerance also for wireless networks and will present preliminary results at the conference this week.