Pioneering software robots to aid businesses

A joint venture has been launched between experts in the Department of Computer Science at Royal Holloway, University of London and Thinking SAFE Limited, a software company supplying data backup, disaster recovery and business continuity solutions to clients of all sizes.

The project will integrate intelligent agent technology developed by the research team at Royal Holloway, led by Dr Kostas Stathis, with distributed data management technology developed by Thinking SAFE’s team, led by their Chief Technology Officer, Julian Dean. The collaboration has received a grant from a commercialisation seed fund (PARK) which is accessible to the WestFocus consortium of universities, including Royal Holloway.

Intelligent agents can be thought of as ‘software robots’ which can be distributed around a computer network, across the internet or on mobile devices to collaborate in carrying out some higher-level task.

A health-monitoring agent on your mobile phone, for example, could use a sensor to check your vital signs and negotiate silently with another software agent at your local clinic to identify symptoms which might cause concern, and recommend suitable action. In such a scenario, the intelligence of the agents in the mobile device and at the clinic could allow them to take account of expected variations to avoid false alarms.

Intelligent agents have numerous other applications, however, including the distributed data management application addressed by this collaboration.

Businesses are under increasing pressure to improve quality and reliability, as customers now expect to specify the terms on which they receive products and services. Businesses are continuing to invest in disaster recovery, but the real challenge is preventing essential computer networks from failing in the first place.

The current generation of computer networks is predominantly static, because networks are designed and configured manually. The collaboration will develop a software product in which intelligent agents run on every computer, monitor the IT services they deliver, observe how business users consume those services, and record how computing resources are being utilised.

The agents’ built-in intelligence will analyse this information to detect service failures and recommend corrective actions, or could even be used in advance to create disaster recovery and business continuity plans. The end result is to deliver networks which are more dynamic and able to heal themselves to reduce the effect of failures.

Dr Stathis said: “The technology also has potential applications in other areas, including environmental monitoring, modelling and managing complex business systems such as supply chains or enhancing online shopping by engaging agents as your ‘personal shoppers’ for anything from holidays to car insurance.”

The application being implemented in this collaboration can be seen as distributed data management in the increasingly important environment known as cloud computing. In effect, it creates a private cloud within an organisation, which can potentially also outsource some of the required storage and processing to external clouds, where appropriate.

Dean commented: “The fusion of these technologies has potential to transform information management within medium to large enterprises, creating self-repairing networks that ensure IT services required by the business are always available.”

Thinking SAFE will be launching the first self-repairing network early 2010, with more applications of the integrated technologies expected throughout the year.

David Wells, from Royal Holloway’s Research and Enterprise Centre, added: Experience gained from the collaboration will also help to guide research at Royal Holloway to further enhance the technology to support the advanced distributed applications of tomorrow.”