Archive for April 2010

The other impediment to software engineering research

In the decades since structured programming, many of the advances in software engineering have come out of non-university sources, mostly of four kinds:

  • Start-up technology companies  (who played a large role, for example, in the development of object technology).
  • Industrial research labs, starting with Xerox PARC and Bell Labs.
  • Independent (non-university-based) author-consultants. 
  • Independent programmer-innovators, who start open-source communities (and often start their own businesses after a while, joining the first category).

 Academic research has had its part, honorable but limited.

Why? In earlier posts [1] [2] I analyzed one major obstacle to software engineering research: the absence of any obligation of review after major software disasters. I will come back to that theme, because the irresponsible attitude of politicial authorities hinders progress by depriving researchers of some of their most important potential working examples. But for university researchers there is another impediment: the near-impossibility of developing serious software.

If you work in theory-oriented parts of computer science, the problem is less significant: as part of a PhD thesis or in preparation of a paper you can develop a software prototype that will support your research all the way to the defense or the publication, and can be left to wither gracefully afterwards. But software engineering studies issues that arise for large systems, where  “large” encompasses not only physical size but also project duration, number of users, number of changes. A software engineering researcher who only ever works on prototypes will be denied the opportunity to study the most significant and challenging problems of the field. The occasional consulting job is not a substitute for this hands-on experience of building and maintaining large software, which is, or should be, at the core of research in our field.

The bodies that fund research in other sciences understood this long ago for physics and chemistry with their huge labs, for mechanical engineering, for electrical engineering. But in computer science or any part of it (and software engineering is generally viewed as a subset of computer science) the idea that we would actually do something , rather than talk about someone else’s artifacts, is alien to the funding process.

The result is an absurd situation that blocks progress. Researchers in experimental physics or mechanical engineering employ technicians: often highly qualified personnel who help researchers set up experiments and process results. In software engineering the equivalent would be programmers, software engineers, testers, technical writers; in the environments that I have seen, getting financing for such positions from a research agency is impossible. If you have requested a programmer position as part of a successful grant request, you can be sure that this item will be the first to go. Researchers quickly understand the situation and learn not even to bother including such requests. (I have personally never seen a counter-example. If you have a different experience, I will be interested to learn who the enlightened agency is. )

The result of this attitude of funding bodies is a catastrophe for software engineering research: the only software we can produce, if we limit ourselves to official guidelines, is demo software. The meaningful products of software engineering (large, significant, usable and useful open-source software systems) are theoretically beyond our reach. Of course many of us work around the restrictions and do manage to produce working software, but only by spending considerable time away from research on programming and maintenance tasks that would be far more efficiently handled by specialized personnel.

The question indeed is efficiency. Software engineering researchers should program as part of their normal work:  only by writing programs and confronting the reality of software development can we hope to make relevant contributions. But in the same way that an experimental physicist is helped by professionals for the parts of experimental work that do not carry a research value, a software engineering researcher should not have to spend time on porting the software to other architectures, performing configuration management, upgrading to new releases of the operating system, adapting to new versions of the libraries, building standard user interfaces, and all the other tasks, largely devoid of research potential, that software-based innovation requires.

Until  research funding mechanisms integrate the practical needs of software engineering research, we will continue to be stymied in our efforts to produce a substantial effect on the quality of the world’s software.

References

[1] The one sure way to advance software engineering: this blog, see here.
[2] Dwelling on the point: this blog, see here.

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Barbie to the rescue

Efforts to attract more women to computer science evoke C. Northcote Parkinson’s analysis of the progression of the British Navy after World War I: ever more admirals, ever fewer ships [1]. There have been some successes, notably at Carnegie Mellon [2], but mostly we tear our hair in despair while percentages of female informatics students hover around 10%, less than in the seventies, regardless of how hard we try (one department I know has a full-fledged “Frauenförderung” —women’s promotion — organization, with as much effect on enrollment as if it were hiring admirals).

The best analysis, going beyond the usual pieties and providing concrete recommendations, is the Informatics Europe report by Jan van Leeuwen and Letizia Tanca [3]. Even the simple steps it recommends, however, still face technical difficulties and faculty resistance.

The report was right to concentrate on the image of the discipline. In one of its conclusions, it encourages us to remind the world that “Informatics/Computing provides the science and the technology that underpins the development of today’s digital world”.

Is help coming from some unlikely quarters? Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal describes [4] the campaign for a new personality of the Barbie doll. In a public vote started by Mattel, girls overwhelmingly chose “Barbie the Anchorwoman”; but the vote was open to anyone, and a campaign of women IT professionals led to the triumph of “Barbie the Computer Engineer”, which as a result will be one of the new models. For the little girl in your life, with her special affinity for logic and her special people skills (the harbinger of IT success), it is never too early to place your order.

References

[1] C. Northcote Parkinson: Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress, London, John Murray, 1958; see also original article in The Economist.

[2] Joanne McGrath Cohoon: Must there be so few?: including women in CS, , International Conference on Software Engineering, Portland, 2003, pages 668-674, available online (with ACM registration).

[3] Jan van Leeuwen and Letizia Tanca (Eds.): Student Enrollment and Image of the Informatics Discipline, Informatics Europe Report IE-2008-01, October 2008, available online.

[4] Ann Zimmerman: Revenge of the Nerds: How Barbie Got Her Geek On, in the Wall Street Journal, 9 April 2010, currently available online.

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Programming on the cloud?

I am blogging live from the “Cloud Futures” conference organized by Microsoft in Redmond [1]. We had two excellent keynotes today, by Ed Lazowska [1] and David Patterson.

Lazowska emphasized the emergence of a new kind of science — eScience — based on analysis of enormous amounts of data. His key point was that this approach is a radical departure from “computational science” as we know it, based mostly on large simulations. With the eScience paradigm, the challenge is to handle the zillions of bytes of data that are available, often through continuous streams, in such fields as astronomy, oceanography or biology. It is unthinkable in his view to process such data through super-computing architectures specific to an institution; the Cloud is the only solution. One of the reasons (developed more explicitly in Patterson’s talk) is that cloud computing supports scaling down as well as scaling up. If your site experiences sudden bursts of popularity — say you get slashdotted — followed by downturns, you just cannot size the hardware right.

Lazowska also noted that it is impossible to convince your average  university president that Cloud is the way to go, as he will get his advice from the science-by-simulation  types. I don’t know who the president is at U. of Washington, but I wonder if the comment would apply to Stanford?

The overall argument for cloud computing is compelling. Of course the history of IT is a succession of swings of the pendulum between centralization and delocalization: mainframes, minis, PCs, client-server, “thin clients”, “The Network Is The Computer” (Sun’s slogan in the late eighties), smart clients, Web services and so on. But this latest swing seems destined to define much of the direction of computing for a while.

Interestingly, no speaker so far has addressed issues of how to program reliably for the cloud, even though cloud computing seems only to add orders of magnitude to the classical opportunities for messing up. Eiffel and contracts have a major role to play here.

More generally the opportunity to improve quality should not be lost. There is a widespread feeling (I don’t know of any systematic studies) that a non-negligible share of results generated by computational science are just bogus, the product of old Fortran programs built by generations of graduate students with little understanding of software principles. At the very least, moving to cloud computing should encourage the use of 21-th century tools, languages and methods. Availability on the cloud should also enhance a critical property of good scientific research: reproducibility.

Software engineering is remarkably absent from the list of scientific application areas that speaker after speaker listed for cloud computing. Maybe software engineering researchers are timid, and do not think of themselves as deserving large computing resources; consider, however, all the potential applications, for example in program verification and empirical software engineering. The cloud is a big part of our own research in verification; in particular the automated testing paradigm pioneered by AutoTest [3] fits ideally with the cloud and we are actively working in this direction.

Lazowska mentioned that development environments are the ultimate application of cloud computing. Martin Nordio at ETH has developed, with the help of Le Minh Duc, a Master’s student at Hanoi University of Technology, a cloud-based version of EiffelStudio: CloudStudio, which I will present in my talk at the conference tomorrow. I’ll write more about it in later posts; just one note for the moment: no one should ever be forced again to update or commit.

References

[1] Program of the Cloud Futures conference.

[2] Keynote by Ed Lazowska. You can see his slides here.

[3] Bertrand Meyer, Arno Fiva, Ilinca Ciupa, Andreas Leitner, Yi Wei, Emmanuel Stapf: Programs That Test Themselves. IEEE Computer, vol. 42, no. 9, pages 46-55, September 2009; online version here.

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