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Posts Tagged ‘complex adaptive systems’

Exploring cloud and complex systems

February 13, 2012 3 comments

This post—this blog—have been a long time coming.

While many may know me from my long journey exploring cloud computing (the first few years of which are archived to this blog, followed by three years at CNET writing The Wisdom of Clouds, and now my continuing work on GigaOm/cloud), for some time now I’ve been keenly interested in a more specific topic under the cloud computing umbrella, namely how cloud computing is driving application architectures to adopt the traits of complex adaptive systems.

Complex adaptive systems (CAS) are fascinating beasts. Described by complex systems pioneer John Holland as “systems that have a large numbers of components, often called agents, that interact and adapt or learn”, CAS are the reason major systems in nature work—from biology to ecology to economics and society. CAS allow for constant change, with an emphasis on changes that make the system stronger, although there is a constant risk that the system will see negative events as well.

Why this is fascinating to me is that CAS resist the ability to break them down to component parts, establishing clear cause-and-effect relationships between the agents involved and the emergent behavior of the system as a whole. In fact, the sheer complex nature of these systems means that outcomes from any given action within a system in at best unpredictable, and quite likely impossible.

An excellent example of this, that I’ve used before, is a pile of sand on a table. Imagine dropping more sand, one grain at a time, onto that pile. Quick, how many grains of sand will fall off the table with each grain added to the “system”? It is impossible to predict.

Now, granted, a table of sand isn’t exactly “adaptive”, but it is indicative of what complexity does to predictability.

CAS and IT

When applied to IT—everything from architectures to markets to organizations—the science of complex adaptive systems has real deep ramifications to the ways we plan, design, build, trouble shoot and adapt our most important applications of technology to business. We can’t do everything top-down anymore. Much, much more of our work has to be built and maintained from the bottom up.

Now, I am a novice at all this, so much of what I believe I know today will likely turn out to be wrong. As a quick example, the “Cloud as Complex Systems Architecture” presentation I am giving at Cloud Connect in Santa Clara, CA on Tuesday was supposed to center around focusing on how you automate the operations of individual software components to survive in the cloud. “Focus on tweaking agent automation”, my message was going to be.

However, that is counter to the reality of what has to happen; it is just as important to evaluate the system as a whole, and adjust *whatever* needs to be adjusted to when issues are identified system wide. In other words, an agent-level focus is exactly the kind of thing that gets you in trouble in complex systems. You see? I am still learning.

I hope you will join me as I take this journey. Follow me on Twitter at @jamesurquhart. Subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog. Leave comments. Challenge me. Point me to new sources of information. Tell me I’m full of it and should start over. In return, I promise to listen, and to share my own journey, including insights I gain from books, online courses and the other very smart people I am very lucky to interact with.

This is going to be fun. I’m pumped to get started.

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