Posts tagged ‘Ground-breaking’

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.


[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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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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One cheer for incremental research

[Note: an updated version of this article (June 2011) appears in the Communications of the ACM blog.]

The world of research funding, always a little strange, has of late been prey to a new craze: paradigm-shift mania. We will only fund twenty curly-haired cranky-sounding visionaries in the hope that one of them will invent relativity. The rest of you — bit-players! Petty functionaries! Slaves toiling at incremental research!  — should be ashamed of even asking.

Take this from the US National Science Foundation’s current description of funding for Computer Systems Research [1]:

CSR-funded projects will enable significant progress on challenging high-impact problems, as opposed to incremental progress on familiar problems.

 The European Research Council is not to be left behind [2]:

Projects being highly ambitious, pioneering and unconventional

Research proposed for funding to the ERC should aim high, both with regard to the ambition of the envisaged scientific achievements as well as to the creativity and originality of proposed approaches, including unconventional methodologies and investigations at the interface between established disciplines. Proposals should rise to pioneering and far-reaching challenges at the frontiers of the field(s) addressed, and involve new, ground-breaking or unconventional methodologies, whose risky outlook is justified by the possibility of a major breakthrough with an impact beyond a specific research domain/discipline.

Frontiers! Breakthrough! Rise! Aim high! Creativity! Risk! Impact! Pass me the adjective bottle. Ground-breaking! Unconventional! Highly ambitious! Major! Far-reaching! Pioneering! Galileo and Pasteur only please — others need not apply.

As everyone knows including the people who write such calls, this is balderdash. First, 99.97% of all research (precise statistic derived from my own ground-breaking research, further funding welcome) is incremental. Second, when a “breakthrough” does happen — the remaining 0.03%  — it was often not planned as a breakthrough.

Incremental research is a most glorious (I have my own supply of adjectives) mode of doing science. Beginning PhD students can be forgiven for believing the myth of the lone genius who penetrates the secrets of time and space by thinking aloud during long walks with his best friend [3]; we all, at some stage, shared that delightful delusion. But every researcher, presumably including those who go on to lead research agencies,  quickly grows up and learns that it is not how things happen. You read someone else’s solution to a problem, and you improve on it. Any history of science will tell you that for every teenager who from getting hit by a falling apple intuits the structure of the universe there are hundreds of great researchers who look at the state of the art and decide they can do a trifle better.

Here is a still recent example, particularly telling because we have the account from the scientist himself. It would not be much of an exaggeration to characterize the entire field of program proving over the past four decades as a long series of variations on Tony Hoare’s 1969 Axiomatic Semantics paper [4]. Here Hoare’s recollection, from his Turing Award lecture [5]:

In October 1968, as I unpacked my papers in my new home in Belfast, I came across an obscure preprint of an article by Bob Floyd entitled “Assigning Meanings to Programs.” What a stroke of luck! At last I could see a way to achieve my hopes for my research. Thus I wrote my first paper on the axiomatic approach to computer programming, published in the Communications of the ACM in October 1969.

(See also note [6].) Had the research been submitted for funding, we can imagine the reaction: “Dear Sir, as you yourself admit, Floyd has had the basic idea [7] and you are just trying to present the result better. This is incremental research; we are in the paradigm-shift business.” And yet if Floyd had the core concepts right it is Hoare’s paper that reworked and extended them into a form that makes practical semantic specifications and proofs possible. Incremental research at its best.

The people in charge of research programs at the NSF and ERC are themselves scientists and know all this. How come they publish such absurd pronouncements? There are two reasons. One is the typical academic’s fascination with industry and its models. Having heard that venture capitalists routinely fund ten projects and expect one to succeed, they want to transpose that model to science funding; hence the emphasis on “risk”. But the transposition is doubtful because venture capitalists assess their wards all the time and, as soon as they decide a venture is not going to break out, they cut the funding overnight, often causing the company to go under. This does not happen in the world of science: most projects, and certainly any project that is supposed to break new ground, gets funded for a minimum of three to five years. If the project peters out, the purse-holder will only realize it after spending all the money.

The second reason is a sincere desire to avoid mediocrity. Here we can sympathize with the funding executives: they have seen too many “here is my epsilon addition to the latest buzzword” proposals. The last time I was at ECOOP, in 2005, it seemed every paper was about bringing some little twist to aspect-oriented programming. This kind of research benefits no one and it is understandable that the research funders want people to innovate. But telling submitters that every project has to be epochal (surprisingly, “epochal” is missing from the adjectives in the descriptions above  — I am sure this will soon be corrected) will not achieve this result.

It achieves something else, good neither for research nor for research funding: promise inflation. Being told that they have to be Darwin or nothing, researchers learn the game and promise the moon; they also get the part about “risk” and emphasize how uncertain the whole thing is and how high the likelihood it will fail. (Indeed, since — if it works — it will let cars run from water seamlessly extracted from the ambient air, and with the excedent produce free afternoon tea.)

By itself this is mostly entertainment, as no one believes the hyped promises. The real harm, however, is to honest scientists who work in the normal way, proposing to bring an important contribution to the  solution of an important problem. They risk being dismissed as small-timers with no vision.

Some funding agencies have kept their heads cool. How refreshing, after the above quotes, to read the general description of funding by the Swiss National Science Foundation [8]:

The central criteria for evaluation are the scientific quality, originality and project methodology as well as qualifications and track record of the applicants. Grants are awarded on a competitive basis.

In a few words, it says all there is to say. Quality, originality, methodology, and track record. Will the research be “ground-breaking” or “incremental”? We will know when it is done.

I am convinced that the other agencies will come to their senses and stop the paradigm-shift nonsense. One reason for hope is in the very excesses of the currently fashionable style. The European Research Council quote includes, by my count, nineteen ways of saying that proposals must be daring. Now it is a pretty universal rule of life that someone who finds it necessary to say the same thing nineteen times in a single paragraph does not feel sure about it. He is trying to convince himself. At some point the people in charge will realize that such hype does not breed breakthroughs; it breeds more hype.

Until that happens there is something that some of us can do: refuse to play the game. Of course we are all convinced that our latest idea is the most important one ever conceived by humankind, and we want to picture it in the most favorable light. But we should resist the promise inflation. Such honesty comes at a risk. (I still remember a project proposal, many years ago, which came back with glowing reviews: the topic was important, the ideas right, the team competent. The agency officer’s verdict: reject. The proposers are certain to succeed, so it’s not research.) For some people, there is really no choice but to follow the lead: if your entire career depends on getting external funding, no amount of exhortation will prevent you from saying what the purse-holders want to hear. But those of us who do have a choice (that is to say, will survive even if a project is rejected) should refuse the compromission. We should present our research ideas for what they are.

So: one cheer for incremental research.

Wait, isn’t the phrase supposed to be “two cheers” [9]?

All right, but let’s go at it incrementally. One and one-tenth cheer for incremental research. 



[1]  National Science Foundation, Division of Computer and Network Systems: Computer Systems Research  (CSR), at

[2] European Research Council: Advanced Investigators Grant, at

[3] The Berne years; see any biography of Albert Einstein.

[4] C.A.R. Hoare: An axiomatic basis for computer programming, in Communications of the ACM, vol. 12, no 10, pages 576–580,583, October 1969.

[5] C.A.R. Hoare: The Emperor’s Old Clothes, in Communications of the ACM, vol. 24, no.  2, pages 75 – 83, February 1981.

[6] In the first version of this essay I wrote “Someone should celebrate the anniversary!”. Moshe Vardi, editor of Communications of the ACM, has informed me that the October 2009 issue will include a retrospective by Hoare on the 1969 paper. I cannot wait to see it.

[7] Robert W. Floyd: Assigning meanings to programs, in Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society Symposia on Applied Mathematics, vol. 19, pp. 19–31, 1967.

[8] Swiss National Science Foundation:  Projects – Investigator-Driven Research, at Disclosure: The SNSF kindly funds some of my research.

[9] E.M. Forster: Two Cheers for Democracy, Edward Arnold, 1951.

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