Computing networks of tomorrow will be evolving meshes of different processors, various legacy and newer hardware, and numerous software and operating platforms spanning generations - making it costly, bordering on impossible, to rely solely on human programmers to build and manage so many diverse systems.

The ancient Greeks believed that, above the terrestrial sphere, the universe was filled with a mysterious element called ether or aether - the ‘fifth element'.   In 19th century physics, ether was believed to be the substance that filled all of space, basically an undefined thing like 'dark matter' that is necessary or the universe does not make sense.

Now we all know better (except for the dark matter part) but the word lives on and is used to refer to things that are ubiquitous.    An EU-funded project has come up with a self-adaptive architecture to enable future ubiquitous networks to deal automatically with changing circumstances - and they named it ÆTHER.

The future internet will not just be confined to our desktop, laptops and phones but will likely fill the ether as computer processors not only find their way into most everyday objects in our physical environment, home,  work, or play, but all these objects will communicate with one another; a far cry from how computing was once perceived.

“We have witnessed a silent change in the way most computing resources are being used, gradually shifting from a few big mainframe computers to millions of small embedded micro-processors that run most of our everyday applications,” Christian Gamrat, the coordinator of ÆTHER.

Computer, adapt thyself

With 14 partners from nine countries, the ÆTHER project has come up with a solution to the challenge of building and managing complex, organic, ever-evolving ubiquitous networks. Known as ‘self-adaptive computing’, the framework is designed around the idea that the platform or system must be able to react by itself to changes in the environment, such as the optimal execution of a wide range of applications on a variety of different platforms using a wide spectrum of dispersed computing resources.

At ÆTHER’s core is a descriptive language known as S-NET which enables several levels of static and dynamic adaptivity. S-NET maximises the use of computing resources by minimising the amount of computing power required for execution. There is also a clear separation between the world of the application designer and that of the computing environment.

The system uses two protocols to support the self-adaptive virtual processor (SVP) and the system environment place (SEP) in delegating tasks to vastly different resources in the pervasive network.

The SANE choice

For the S-NET model of self-adaptive computing to work requires it to be integrated into the system architecture at the processor level. This is what the ÆTHER project calls SANE, or self-adaptive networking elements. “By designing each computing element along the SANE design pattern, we guarantee its seamless integration within the ÆTHER framework,” says Gamrat.

He adds that SANE ensures that “each and every bit of computing resources has a level of autonomy that makes it suitable to accept jobs delegated by the run-time systems and returns reports indicating the actual cost of execution”.

As ÆTHER is about the principles and the protocols needed to implement ‘self-adaptivity’ in heterogeneous networks, it is a very versatile technology. It can be applied both to standard or reconfigurable processors and future bio- or nano-based architectures, as well as contemporary mobile technology and futuristic pervasive computing. It can also be used to develop complex systems that are not only self-adapting but self-healing and self-repairing.

Spin-off projects seeking to harness ÆTHER’s full potential have started or are already in the pipeline. One example is the EU-funded Apple-CORE project which seeks to mainstream multi-core processors and to integrate many-core chips into the PCs of the future.

ÆTHER was funded by the FET proactive initiative (Advanced Computing Architecture) of the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme for research.

The ÆTHER project home page
More on ÆTHER from Cordis