Posts tagged ‘Breakthroughs’

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.


[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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The understated breakthrough

You must have seen articles in that genre: the author collects a few  imprudent technology predictions from the past and pokes fun at their authors, the more prestigious the better. Favorites — copy-pasted, with or without fact-checking, from one  such piece to another — are Lord Kelvin’s 1895 pronouncement that “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible” and Bill Gates’s comment (apocryphal, but who cares?) that no one needs more than 640KB of memory. Run a Bing search for something like “wrong technology predictions” and you will find dozens of such collections.

A few years ago they often derided turn-of-the-previous-century visions of communication through a videophone, as in this depiction by Villemard:


A bit one-sided in its view of gender roles, but delightful and amusing. “Look what in 1910 they thought the future would bring!” In 2009 it is no longer laughable: the future is here, and — other than display techniques and women’s fashions — it is exactly this.

I am amazed by the lack of hype that has been associated with Skype. With close to 500 million accounts, and 17 million of them connected at a typical time, it is not exactly a secret; but it is remarkable how little buzz it gets in the media and in our collective consciousness.  The company itself seems to be more interested in getting the job done than in glamour. If we look at the substance, however, few technologies come to mind from the past few decades that have influenced people’s lives so directly and beneficially. From the launch of Skype in 2003 it became possible to have free calls worldwide;  then in 2005 free video was included. Suddenly this videotelephony, fodder for visionaries and cartoonists, became available to anyone with an Internet connection — for free! Almost as unbelievable as the technical feat is that this all happened without headlines, without grandiose pronouncements, and without any forewarning by the technology pundits. Almost overnight we take a giant collective step, and we act as if nothing happened.

With and without video, Skype has had a profound effect on the daily communications of countless people. It also has many professional applications; in an article of last year [2] I described how we use it, together with other technologies such as Google Docs, to turn the old “Code inspection” of software engineering into something far more useful to the project and attractive to the participants.

As always with a breakthrough technology, you find the naysayers; in the universities of a large Western country, system administrators have — can anyone believe this? — banned the use of  Skype, invoking some mysterious and unsubstantiated security risks. And certainly Skype is not perfect; we still get the occasional dropped call. What is more relevant than the occasional annoyance is how well the technology is designed; I have used the audio part, with quite reasonable performance, on a dial-up line from a remote location. And successive versions keep bringing in new wonders.

If there was an award for the highest usefulness to brouhaha ratio, Skype would be the favorite. Cheers for the most practical, least hyped technology of our time.



[1] Futuristic postcards by Villemard, from an exhibition.

[2] Design and Code Reviews in the Age of the Internet (preprint of an article in Communications of the ACM, Sept. 2008).

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