Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a new and evolutionary way of looking at a problem and attempting to gain understanding and knowledge about a system. A system is “set of elements standing in interrelations” as defined by Ludwig von Bertlanffy in his book General Systems Theory. My understanding of this is that a system is a mathematical set of physical parts and a set of physical relationships between the parts. It should be noted that the parts themselves are often but not necessarily systems too. It is important to understand what a system is before trying to how a system operates and why it does.

As Systems thinking is the topic this week for my subject “Systems Engineering for Software Engineers” there are associated readings (and viewings) to push us to think about the topic. The first is a short lecture given by Dr Russel Ackoff. In the video he briefly goes into his view of systems thinking and what it actually is.

He defines systems thinking to be synthetic. By nature we think analytically, pulling apart a system to analyses it as a collection of components and then combining the individual understanding of each component in an attempt to understand the system as a whole. He posits that this gives us no understanding, only knowledge (which is still very useful).

Synthetic thinking is in direct opposition to analytical thinking, it requires that you view the system as a component in a larger containment system, communicating with other components. By determining the behavior and functionality of the containment system as a whole and them dismantling the containing system by identifying the underlying functionality of the system as a component. Dr Ackoff stresses the importance of considering the function of the system as being more important than the internal knowledge of how the system works.

This seems counter intuitive to me. A system is the product of the sum of its parts and the sum of its internal interactions. Considering this, analytical thinking is often flawed by ignoring the interaction. Chemistry education relies on this flaw to help students understand quantized energy of electrons in an atom. By ignoring the interaction of the electrons with each other (by considering on the base case hydrogen) we can grasp the way that energy can influence the properties of an atom and we can do so without much difficulty. In order to overcome the challenge of considering the electron-electron interactions (which often depend on complex computational math) chemistry appears to have developed a similar approach to systems thinking in regard to the wider context of a chemical in a system.

Chemistry is defined as “the science of substances: their structure, their properties, and the reactions that change them into other substances” in Linus Paulings Text book ‘General Chemistry. This definition embodies the systems thinking process. Chemistry takes a molecule and looks internally at it’s structure (analytically) and at its properties as it interacts within a neutral context as well as the reactions that it undergoes within the system that it came from (systematically). A chemist would then attempt to match the properties and reactions in its natural context to the molecules internal components and there interactions (atoms, electrons, protons etc.)

We can see that chemistry is an example of where analytically assessing a system (a chemical or a molecule) gives only half the picture, and that we quite often need a context and a functionality of the system as a whole to even comprehend its internal interactions. As systems become more complex not only does analytic thinking not provide real understanding of a system but without a systematic thought process, we may misunderstand the way that the internal interactions either should or do behave.

This brings us to the relevance at the core of the subject. Why should software engineers think about systems engineering and systems thinking? Without a greater understanding of the larger system, a software component may not function appropriately within the system or by misinterpreting the system provide a flawed or incorrect implementation of what is required. It is only by considering the larger system as a whole that we can effectively develop correct and appropriate software.

Powernap – The Server Power Management

I recently moved into a new home and one of the first things that I HAD to do was setup the home media server with a XBMC front end. So I set it up and I have been watching movies and television happily for a month now. All was going well until I got my first electricity bill. Wow was it painful. Of course it include the usage of a fridge and other appliances, but the media server had not been turned off for the whole month even though I only used it maybe 2 hours a day.

To this end I set out to find a way to reduce power consumption. The first thing that I thought of was a simple shutdown script for the XBMC front end that would turn off the server before it turned off. This worked well but there where problems, that sometimes the front end wasn’t turned off for long periods with idle time, or sometimes after I turned off the front end I still wanted to access the server and I still had to manually turn the server on. Clearly this was not a long term solution.

The next concept was to get the computer to be turned on via Wake On Lan. Wake On Lan (WoL) is a method of sending a special command to a computers motherboard via an Ethernet connection. This is easy to setup but hard actually do. Searching around online I found a program Powerwake written by Dustin Kirkland which using a very simple interface can perform as required. On Ubuntu this can be installed and used to wake a computer like so:

sudo apt-get install powerwake

sudo powerwake

*Replace with the the address of the computer you want to wake.

This can be used to wake a sleeping computer. I use a simple script built into the front end which when runs wakes the server, waits about 30 seconds and then tries to remount the fstab file. If it the remount fails it waits another 30 seconds and then tries again. When the remount succeeds the computer reloads XBMC – easy.

This leaves only the problem of getting the server to turn off after inactivity. For this I installed the powernap program. This is a great application, again from Dustin Kirkland, which acts much like a screen saver for a server or non-GUI system. It is was quite complex to setup, but once you understand how it works it becomes much simpler.

Unfortunately time has run out and this post must end now. Stay tuned for updates of how I installed Powernap and a better look at how the program works.

As power is becoming a more and more costly and a limited resource (until we switch to renewable energy sources) tools such as powernap and powerwake will become more and more necessary for both hobbyists and professionals alike.

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