COMPUTER SCIENTISTS LOOK FORWARD TO A time when routine system management tasks such as adding memory or allocating disk space are automated. The need for increased automation is clear, since the rise of the Internet and computer networks has far outstripped the supply of available information technology (IT) workers.

Some call these capabilities “autonomic,” others call them “self-healing,” but most industry analysts agree that autonomic computing is a vague concept that's been tough for large computer vendors such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard to sell.

One baby step toward what will be a gradual evolution to autonomic computing is ThinkVantage, a series of system management tools IBM builds into its desktops and laptops. One of the more notable features is Rescue and Recovery with Rapid Restore, which lets a user restore a PC to a previously saved state with the touch of a button. This feature is in use at Newport Beach, Calif.–based WL Homes, which had 1,806 closings in 2003 and $744 million in revenue under the John Laing Homes brand name. WL is a fairly large builder, but Rapid Restore can be applied by small custom builders with only two or three employees.

Steven Scardina, WL's vice president of information technology, says he and his staff manage 350 users, 100 of whom are field workers in sales offices or trailers, so a tool like Rapid Restore that helps users automatically recover from common problems such as corrupted software files is most welcome. Scardina says WL installed Rapid Restore on about 50 machines, all of which are for field workers.

“In the past, we had to send an IT person out into the field with an operating system CD, erase the hard drive, and install the operating system and all the applications, a process that would take three hours plus drive time out to the site,” says Scardina. “Now, we can restore a system in 35 minutes at the push of a button without an IT person having to leave the office.”

Here's how it works: When an IT worker configures a new PC, Rapid Restore takes an image of the system's configuration on that day and stores it on its local hard drive in the event of a failure. If the system fails, all the user needs to do is hit the F11 key and Rapid Restore rebuilds the operating system and programs automatically.

“This has been very helpful for the machines in the construction trailer or sales offices outside our local network,” says Scardina. “The field machines are more prone to some of the spyware programs that can kill a machine.”

Mark Margevicius, an analyst with computer industry research firm the Gartner Group, says features such as Rapid Restore deliver more uptime at reduced operations costs, a formula that's perfect for companies that find the large volume of PCs tough to manage.