The evolution of software


SCIENCE FOUNDATION IRELAND:IRELAND IS at the leading edge of the emerging software area of evolving critical systems thanks to the work of Lero – the Irish software engineering research centre.

The Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) funded Centre for Science Engineering and Technology brings together leading software engineering teams from the University of Limerick, DCU, Trinity College Dublin, UCD, Dundalk IT and NUI, Galway in a coordinated centre of research excellence with a strong industry focus.

The centre focuses on the methods and tools needed to develop reliable and effective software that can be easily modified over time – and which, in particular cases, is intelligent enough to modify itself to meet changing requirements and environmental conditions.

“One of the things about software is that it changes,” says Lero general manager, Brendan O’Malley. “Over the years what has tended to happen is that software that was written 50 years ago has been patched and added to keep it running. This results in a decline in performance and nobody really understands it. It also means it can be dangerous to go messing with it to fix it. The question we are looking at is how you can design software so that it can evolve over time without costing an arm and a leg to do it.”

Lero is principally concerned with critical systems. “We aren’t interested in games or areas like that,” says O’Malley. “Our interest is in the software businesses and systems can’t run without. Take Amazon. If their order processing software goes down for a period they could lose huge amounts of revenue. Modern cars are computer networks on wheels. And more and more companies would be dead in the water if their IT systems break down. And in many cases the quality of the software being used is questionable and it is only running thanks to a lot of heroism, string and sellotape.”

Lero has 40 academics, 30 research fellows and more than 100 PhD students working across the six higher education institutes and recently received its second tranche of €16 million in SFI funding. This was complemented by a very significant industry contribution of €6.4 million from a variety of companies including IBM Ireland, Intel, Information Mosaic, JBA Consulting, QAD Ireland, Kugler Maag CIE, Almir Business, Movidius, Lumension Security Ireland, Vitalograph, Storm Technology and Fineos.

Since its foundation in 2005, Lero has established strategic research partnerships with more than 70 multinational and indigenous companies, with research contracts having been signed with partners such as the European Space Agency and United Technologies Research Centre in Cork.

Among the projects currently being worked on by Fineos is a project management tool for major software engineering projects. “Major software engineering projects being undertaken by global corporations will have teams of developers working on various aspects of the project in a number of different locations. There will be time zone issues, cultural and language difficulties and a variety of other hurdles to be overcome. We are developing a global teaming model that incorporates a large number of different process elements and this will be of significant interest to the international software industry.”

Of interest to anyone using Facebook or any mobile IT device at present will be the centre’s work in the areas of security and privacy.

“People used to work in buildings and the IT systems were inside those buildings so security began and ended at the doors,” says O’Malley. “Today, you can have people and IT and databases distributed in various places and you have to decide on security boundaries. You also have to understand that these boundaries can be dynamic and people can have different levels of access, depending on where they are working and what projects they’re working on. We’re working on systems that will be able to recognise those changes and dynamically change the boundaries as required. We’re looking at similar issues in relation to privacy.”

Another area being worked on is the performance of software. While it may be relatively easy to gauge the potential performance of a piece of software running on a single machine or quiet network, it is a different question entirely how it will perform on a network with thousands of users, hundreds of thousands of processes and running potentially millions of transactions per second. “We worked with IBM on a project in this area and that was very successful in helping identify what makes software perform more efficiently in complex environments.”

“We have a long-term relationship with Lero,” says Bill Kearney, director of IBM’s Software Lab Ireland. “We envisage future collaborative research with Lero in the areas of security, model-driven software development, cloud computing and large-scale software development. IBM has a long-running tradition of research collaboration with our colleagues in academia in Ireland. The goal of our collaborative initiative is to continue strong partnerships with the university ecosystem and ensure open innovation as a means to respond to our changing world.”

One other area that might interest many Irish companies is the work Lero is doing to give old software a new lease of life by effectively deconstructing the old system and putting it back together in a more efficient and easy-to-understand way.

“We’ve worked with a number of companies in Ireland on projects like these and have enabled them to continue to use their legacy systems without going to the expense of buying or commissioning new software,” says O’Malley.