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Why Do Computers Crash So Much?

A recent study tries to explain why living organisms malfunction less than computers.

Naresh Kumar
Naresh Kumar on May 6, 2010.

A Yale study compared the evolution of organisms and computer operating systems to understand why living organisms tend to malfunction less than computers. Scientists analyzed the control networks in a bacterium E. Coli and in the Linux operating system.

Physorg reports on the study.

Both E coli and the Linux networks are arranged in hierarchies, but with some notable differences in how they achieve operational efficiencies. The molecular networks in the bacteria are arranged in a pyramid, with a limited number of master regulatory genes at the top that control a broad base of specialized functions, which act independently.

In contrast, the Linux operating system is organized more like an inverted pyramid, with many different top-level routines controlling few generic functions at the bottom of the network. Professor Mark Gerstein, head of the study, said that this organization arises because software engineers tend to save money and time by building upon existing routines rather than starting systems from scratch. But it also means the operating system is more vulnerable to breakdowns because even simple updates to a generic routine can be very disruptive. To compensate, these generic components have to be continually fine-tuned by designers.

Operating systems are like urban streets – engineers tend to focus on areas that get a lot of traffic,” said Gerstein. “We can do this because we are designing these changes intelligently.”

What if this analogy is extended to a living organism such as E coli? Gerstein explains:

Without fine-tuning, a disruption of such major molecular roadways by random mutations would be fatal. That’s why E. coli cannot afford generic components and has preserved an organization with highly specialized modules. Over billions of years of evolution, such an organization has proven robust, protecting the organism from random damaging mutations.

The report was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Physorg: “Scientists Explain Why Computers Crash But We Don’t”

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