Archive for the ‘Distributed software development’ Category.

Awareness and merge conflicts in distributed development (new paper)

Actually not that new: this paper [1] was published in August of last year. It is part of Christian Estler’s work for this PhD thesis, defended a few weeks ago, and was pursued in collaboration with Martin Nordio and Carlo Furia. It received the best paper award at the International Conference on Global Software Engineering; in fact this was the third time in a row that this group received the ICGSE award, so it must have learned a few things about collaborative development.

The topic is an issue that affects almost all software teams: how to make sure that people are aware of each other’s changes to a shared software base, in particular to avoid the dreaded case of a merge conflict: you and I are working on the same piece of code, but we find out too late, and we have to undergo the painful process of reconciling our conflicting changes.

The paper builds once again on the experience of our long-running “Distributed and Outsourced Software Engineering” course project, where students from geographically spread universities collaborate on a software development [2]. It relies on data from 105 student developers making up twelve development teams located in different countries.

The usual reservations about using data from students apply, but the project is substantial and the conditions not entirely different from those of an industrial development.

The study measured the frequency and impact of merge conflicts, the effect of insufficient awareness (no one told me that you are working on the same module that I am currently modifying) and the consequences for the project: timeliness, developer morale, productivity.

Among the results: distribution does not matter that much (people are not necessarily better informed about their local co-workers’ developments than about remote collaborators); lack of awareness occurs more often than merge conflicts, and causes more damage.



[1] H-Christian Estler, Martin Nordio, Carlo A. Furia and Bertrand Meyer: Awareness and Merge Conflicts in Distributed Software Development, in proceedings of ICGSE 2014, 9th International Conference on Global Software Engineering, Shanghai, 18-21 August 2014, IEEE Computer Society Press (best paper award), see here.

[2] Distributed and Outsourced Software Engineering course and project, see here. (The text mentions “DOSE 2013” but the concepts remains applicable and it will be updated.)

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The laws of branching (part 2): Tichy and Joy

Recently I mentioned the first law of branching (see earlier article) to Walter Tichy, famed creator of RCS, the system that established modern configuration management. He replied with the following anecdote, which is worth reproducing in its entirety (in his own words):

I started work on RCS in 1980, because I needed an alternative for SCCS, for which the license cost would have been prohibitive. Also, I wanted to experiment with reverse deltas. With reverse deltas, checking out the latest version is fast, because it is stored intact. For older ones, RCS applied backward deltas. So the older revisions took longer to extract, but that was OK, because most accesses are to the newest revision anyway.

At first, I didn’t know how to handle branches in this scheme. Storing each branch tip in full seemed like a waste. So I simply left out the branches.

It didn’t take long an people were using RCS. Bill Joy, who was at Berkeley at the time and working on Berkeley Unix, got interested. He gave me several hints about unpleasant features of SCCS that I should correct. For instance, SCCS didn’t handle identification keywords properly under certain circumstances, the locking scheme was awkward, and the commands too. I figured out a way to solve these issue. Bill was actually my toughest critic! When I was done with all the modifications, Bill cam back and said that he was not going to use RCS unless I put in branches. So I figured out a way. In order to reconstruct a branch tip, you start with the latest version on the main trunk, apply backwards deltas up to the branch point, and then apply forward deltas out to the branch tip. I also implemented a numbering scheme for branches that is extensible.

When discussing the solution, Bill asked me whether this scheme meant that it would take longer to check in and out on branches. I had to admit that this was true. With the machines at that time (VAXen) efficiency was important. He thought about this for a moment and then said that that was actually great. It would discourage programmers from using branches! He felt they were a necessary evil.

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The laws of branching (part 1)


The first law of branching is: don’t. There is no other law.

The only sane way to develop software in a group, whether collocated or distributed, is to have a single branch (“trunk”) to which everyone commits changes, with constant running of the regression test suite to make sure that any breaking change is detected and corrected right away.

To allow branching, that is to say the emergence of separate lines of development with the expectation that they will be merged back later on, is to guarantee disaster. It is easy to diverge, but hard to converge; not only hard, but unpredictable. It can take days, weeks or more to reconcile changes and resolve conflicts, when the reason for the changes is no longer fresh in the developers’ memories, and the developers themselves may even no longer be there. Conflicts should be detected right away, and corrected immediately.

The EiffelStudio development never uses branches. A related development, EVE (Eiffel Verification Environment), maintained at ETH, includes all research tools, and is reconciled every Friday with the EiffelStudio trunk, so it is never allowed to diverge into a separate branch. Most other successful teams I know apply the first law of branching too. Solve conflicts before they have had the time to become conflicts.

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New course partners sought: a DOSE of software engineering education


Since 2007 we have conducted, as part of a course at ETH, the DOSE project, Distributed and Outsourced Software Engineering, developed by cooperating student teams from a dozen universities around the world. We are finalizing the plans for the next edition, October to December 2013, and will be happy to welcome a few more universities.

The project consists of building a significant software system collaboratively, using techniques of distributed software development. Each university contributes a number of “teams”, typically of two or three students each; then “groups”, each made up of three teams from different universities, produce a version of the project.

The project’s theme has varied from year to year, often involving games. We make sure that the development naturally divides into three subsystems or “clusters”, so that each group can quickly distribute the work among its teams. An example of division into clusters, for a game project, is: game logic; database and player management; user interface. The page that describes the setup in more detail [1] has links enabling you to see the results of some of the best systems developed by students in recent years.

The project is a challenge. Students are in different time zones, have various backgrounds (although there are minimum common requirements [1]), different mother tongues (English is the working language of the project). Distributed development is always hard, and is harder in the time-constrained context of a university course. (In industry, while we do not like that a project’s schedule slips, we can often survive if it does; in a university, when the semester ends, we have to give students a grade and they go away!) It is typical, after the initial elation of meeting new student colleagues from exotic places has subsided and the reality of interaction sets in, that some groups will after a month, just before the first or second deadline, start to panic — then take matters into their own hands and produce an impressive result. Students invariably tell us that they learn a lot through the course; it is a great opportunity to practice the principles of modern software engineering and to get prepared for the realities of today’s developments in industry, which are in general distributed.

For instructors interested in software engineering research, the project is also a great way to study issues of distributed development in  a controlled setting; the already long list of publications arising from studies performed in earlier iterations [3-9] suggests the wealth of available possibilities.

Although the 2013 project already has about as many participating universities as in previous years, we are always happy to consider new partners. In particular it would be great to include some from North America. Please read the requirements on participating universities given in [1]; managing such a complex process is a challenge in itself (as one can easily guess) and all teaching teams must share goals and commitment.


[1] General description of DOSE, available here.

[2] Bertrand Meyer: Offshore Development: The Unspoken Revolution in Software Engineering, in Computer (IEEE), January 2006, pages 124, 122-123, available here.

[3] Bertrand Meyer and Marco Piccioni: The Allure and Risks of a Deployable Software Engineering Project: Experiences with Both Local and Distributed Development, in Proceedings of IEEE Conference on Software Engineering & Training (CSEE&T), Charleston (South Carolina), 14-17 April 2008, available here.

[4] Martin Nordio, Roman Mitin, Bertrand Meyer, Carlo Ghezzi, Elisabetta Di Nitto and Giordano Tamburelli: The Role of Contracts in Distributed Development, in Proceedings of Software Engineering Advances For Offshore and Outsourced Development, Lecture Notes in Business Information Processing 35, Springer-Verlag, 2009, available here.

[5] Martin Nordio, Roman Mitin and Bertrand Meyer: Advanced Hands-on Training for Distributed and Outsourced Software Engineering, in Proceedings of the 32nd ACM/IEEE International Conference on Software Engineering – Volume 1, ACM. 2010 available here.

[6] Martin Nordio, Carlo Ghezzi, Bertrand Meyer, Elisabetta Di Nitto, Giordano Tamburrelli, Julian Tschannen, Nazareno Aguirre and Vidya Kulkarni: Teaching Software Engineering using Globally Distributed Projects: the DOSE course, in Collaborative Teaching of Globally Distributed Software Development – Community Building Workshop (CTGDSD — an ICSE workshop), ACM, 2011, available here.

[7] Martin Nordio, H.-Christian Estler, Bertrand Meyer, Julian Tschannen, Carlo Ghezzi, and Elisabetta Di Nitto: How do Distribution and Time Zones affect Software Development? A Case Study on Communication, in Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Global Software Engineering (ICGSE), IEEE, pages 176–184, 2011, available here.

[8] H.-Christian Estler, Martin Nordio, Carlo A. Furia, and Bertrand Meyer: Distributed Collaborative Debugging, to appear in Proceedings of 7th International Conference on Global Software Engineering (ICGSE), 2013.

[9] H.-Christian Estler, Martin Nordio, Carlo A. Furia, and Bertrand Meyer: Unifying Configuration Management with Awareness Systems and Merge Conflict Detection, to appear in Proceedings of the 22nd Australasian Software Engineering Conference (ASWEC), 2013.


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LASER summer school: Software for the Cloud and Big Data

The 2013 LASER summer school, organized by our chair at ETH, will take place September 8-14, once more in the idyllic setting of the Hotel del Golfo in Procchio, on the island of Elba in Italy. This is already the 10th conference; the roster of speakers so far reads like a who’s who of software engineering.

The theme this year is Software for the Cloud and Big Data and the speakers are Roger Barga from Microsoft, Karin Breitman from EMC,  Sebastian Burckhardt  from Microsoft,  Adrian Cockcroft from Netflix,  Carlo Ghezzi from Politecnico di Milano,  Anthony Joseph from Berkeley,  Pere Mato Vila from CERN and I.

LASER always has a strong practical bent, but this year it is particularly pronounced as you can see from the list of speakers and their affiliations. The topic is particularly timely: exploring the software aspects of game-changing developments currently redefining the IT scene.

The LASER formula is by now well-tuned: lectures over seven days (Sunday to Saturday), about five hours in the morning and three in the early evening, by world-class speakers; free time in the afternoon to enjoy the magnificent surroundings; 5-star accommodation and food in the best hotel of Elba, made affordable as we come towards the end of the season (and are valued long-term customers). The group picture below is from last year’s school.

Participants are from both industry and academia and have ample opportunities for interaction with the speakers, who typically attend each others’ lectures and engage in in-depth discussions. There is also time for some participant presentations; a free afternoon to discover Elba and brush up on your Napoleonic knowledge; and a boat trip on the final day.

Information about the 2013 school can be found here.

LASER 2012, Procchio, Hotel del Golvo

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Another DOSE of distributed software development

The software world is not flat; it is multipolar. Gone are the days of one-site, one-team developments. The increasingly dominant model today is a distributed team; the place where the job gets done is the place where the appropriate people reside, even if it means that different parts of the job get done in different places.

This new setup, possibly the most important change to have affected the practice of software engineering in this early part of the millennium,  has received little attention in the literature; and even less in teaching techniques. I got interested in the topic several years ago, initially by looking at the phenomenon of outsourcing from a software engineering perspective [1]. At ETH, since 2004, Peter Kolb and I, aided by Martin Nordio and Roman Mitin, have taught a course on the topic [2], initially called “software engineering for outsourcing”. As far as I know it was the first course of its kind anywhere; not the first course about outsourcing, but the first to explore the software engineering implications, rather than business or political issues. We also teach an industry course on the same issues [3], attended since 2005 by several hundred participants, and started, with Mathai Joseph from Tata Consulting Services, the SEAFOOD conference [4], Software Engineering Advances For Outsourced and Offshore Development, whose fourth edition starts tomorrow in Saint Petersburg.

After a few sessions of the ETH course we realized that the most important property of the mode of software development explored in the course is not that it involves outsourcing but that it is distributed. In parallel I became directly involved with highly distributed development in the practice of Eiffel Software’s development. In 2007 we renamed the ETH course “Distributed and Outsourced Software Engineering” (DOSE) to acknowledge the broadened scope. The topic is still new; each year we learn a little more about what to teach and how to teach it.

The 2007 session saw another important addition. We felt it was no longer sufficient to talk about distributed development, but that students should practice it. Collaboration between groups in Zurich and other groups in Zurich was not good enough. So we contacted colleagues around the world interested in similar issues, and received an enthusiastic response. The DOSE project is itself distributed: teams from students in different universities collaborate in a single development. Typically, we have two or three geographically distributed locations in each project group. The participating universities have been Politecnico di Milano (where our colleagues Carlo Ghezzi and Elisabetta di Nitto have played a major role in the current version of the project), University of Nijny-Novgorod in Russia, University of Debrecen in Hungary, Hanoi University of Technology in Vietnam, Odessa National Polytechnic in the Ukraine and (across town for us) University of Zurich. For the first time in 2010 a university from the Western hemisphere will join: University of Rio Cuarto in Argentina.

We have extensively studied how the projects actually fare (see publications [4-8]). For students, the job is hard. Often, after a couple of weeks, many want to give up: they have trouble reaching their partner teams, understanding their accents on Skype calls, agreeing on modes of collaboration, finalizing APIs, devising a proper test plan. Yet they hang on and, in most cases, succeed. At the end of the course they tell us how much they have learned about software engineering. For example I know few better way of teaching the importance of carefully documented program interfaces — including contracts — than to ask the students to integrate their modules with code from another team halfway around the globe. This is exactly what happens in industrial software development, when you can no longer rely on informal contacts at the coffee machine or in the parking lot to smooth out misunderstandings: software engineering principles and techniques come in full swing. With DOSE, students learn and practice these fundamental techniques in the controlled environment of a university project.

An example project topic, used last year, was based on an idea by Martin Nordio. He pointed out that in most countries there are some card games played in that country only. The project was to program such a game, where the team in charge of the game logic (what would be the “business model” in an industrial project) had to explain enough of their country’s game, and abstractly enough, to enable the other team to produce the user interface, based on a common game engine started by Martin. It was tough, but some of the results were spectacular, and these are students who will not need more preaching on the importance of specifications.

We are currently preparing the next session of DOSE, in collaboration with our partner universities. The more the merrier: we’d love to have other universities participate, including from the US. Adding extra spice to the project, the topic will be chosen among those from the ICSE SCORE competition [9], so that winning students have the opportunity to attend ICSE in Hawaii. If you are teaching a suitable course, or can organize a student group that will fit, please read the project description [10] and contact me or one of the other organizers listed on the page. There is a DOSE of madness in the idea, but no one, teacher or student,  ever leaves the course bored.


[1] Bertrand Meyer: Offshore Development: The Unspoken Revolution in Software Engineering, in Computer (IEEE), January 2006, pages 124, 122-123. Available here.

[2] ETH course page: see here for last year’s session (description of Fall 2010 session will be added soon).

[3] Industry course page: see here for latest (June 2010( session (description of November 2010 session will be added soon).

[4] SEAFOOD 2010 home page.

[5] Bertrand Meyer and Marco Piccioni: The Allure and Risks of a Deployable Software Engineering Project: Experiences with Both Local and Distributed Development, in Proceedings of IEEE Conference on Software Engineering & Training (CSEE&T), Charleston (South Carolina), 14-17 April 2008, ed. H. Saiedian, pages 3-16. Preprint version  available online.

[6] Bertrand Meyer:  Design and Code Reviews in the Age of the Internet, in Communications of the ACM, vol. 51, no. 9, September 2008, pages 66-71. (Original version in Proceedings of SEAFOOD 2008 (Software Engineering Advances For Offshore and Outsourced Development,  Lecture Notes in Business Information Processing 16, Springer Verlag, 2009.) Available online.

[7] Martin Nordio, Roman Mitin, Bertrand Meyer, Carlo Ghezzi, Elisabetta Di Nitto and Giordano Tamburelli: The Role of Contracts in Distributed Development, in Proceedings of SEAFOOD 2009 (Software Engineering Advances For Offshore and Outsourced Development), Zurich, June-July 2009, Lecture Notes in Business Information Processing 35, Springer Verlag, 2009. Available online.

[8] Martin Nordio, Roman Mitin and Bertrand Meyer: Advanced Hands-on Training for Distributed and Outsourced Software Engineering, in ICSE 2010: Proceedings of 32th International Conference on Software Engineering, Cape Town, May 2010, IEEE Computer Society Press, 2010. Available online.

[9] ICSE SCORE 2011 competition home page.

[10] DOSE project course page.

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From programming to software engineering: ICSE keynote slides available

In response to many requests, I have made available [1] the slides of my education keynote at ICSE earlier this month. The theme was “From programming to software engineering: notes of an accidental teacher”. Some of the material has been presented before, notably at the Informatics Education Europe conference in Venice in 2009. (In research you can give a new talk every month, but in education things move at a more senatorial pace.) Still, part of the content is new. The talk is a summary of my experience teaching programming and software engineering at ETH.

The usual caveats apply: these are only slides (I did not write a paper), and not all may be understandable independently of the actual talk.


[1] From programming to software engineering: notes of an accidental teacher, slides from a keynote talk at ICSE 2010.

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