Bumble Bees and Internet Servers

Feb. 18, 2009

By Barbara Horwitz-Bennett

One of the handful of places where biomimicry, applying nature’s solutions to man’s design challenges, is alive and well is at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta. In fact, in addition to a course on Bio-Inspired Design, researchers like Craig Tovey, a professor in the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering and College of Computing, are involved in a number of such projects.


Interestingly enough, Tovey’s biomimicry claim to fame was figuring out how to apply the way bees scout out and strategically collect nectar to the design of an Internet server system that optimally adapts and responds to changes in user demand.


“I had studied honey bee colony foraging for several years with colleagues, so, more than 10 years later, when a student described a web host problem, I saw the similarity,” Tovey recalls. Essentially, foraging bees “are actually solving a difficult allocation optimization problem when they collect nectar from various patches [some closer, some further away]. The problem of allocating servers at a Web host facility is remarkably similar, as each server is like a bee.”


By designing the system to conserve resources during idle times and harness additional support (i.e. recruiting more bees) during spikes in Internet use, one Web-hosting company has improved its bottom line by 20 percent.


But, beyond Internet servers, Tovey sees biomimicry as an exciting and promising field, given a few conditions. In addition to scientists and engineers becoming more versed in biology, Tovey states, “We need several more visible prototypes … and we need them to be publicized! We then need entrepreneurs who will see these prototypes, conceive of a general-use product based on these prototypes, and create a business.” 

Barbara Horwitz-Bennett ([email protected]) is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to publications and organizations in the design, building, and construction industry.

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