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The hard science of software’s next stage

The Irish Software Research Centre specialises in those strategically important ‘evolving critical systems’

Software now pervades almost every area of our lives. Our phones, our cars, our cookers, our washing machines – just about every physical object we encounter relies on software to function to some extent.

The 200-strong team at Lero, the Science Foundation Ireland-backed Irish Software Research Centre, is engaged in research covering just about every aspect. Areas of focus stretch from urban traffic control to corporate compliance systems, medical devices, financial services and ICT – and even space missions.

Lero, which is based at the University of Limerick, brings together leading software research teams from Ireland's seven universities and the Dundalk Institute of Technology in a coordinated centre of research with a strong industry focus.

Its main area of research is what Lero director Prof Mike Hinchey calls "evolving critical systems". These are systems that change over time, are strategically important to their users, and are often significantly software-intensive.

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

Examples include business- critical systems such as airline websites, safety-critical systems such as automotive braking control systems, and product critical systems such as the core modules of a large software product. All such systems must be predictable and reliable while operating in environments that demand flexibility in the face of long-term evolutionary changes and more immediate and dynamic requirements to adapt.

For example: “You can upgrade a heart pacemaker by upgrading the software on the device rather than operating on the patient to replace it.”

Deep space

He also points to the software on board a deep space probe and its need to adapt to changing circumstances and effectively fix itself.

“The software itself has to be capable of evolving and adapting to meet changing conditions during the mission. The spacecraft is so far away from Earth that by the time you have detected the problem here it would be too late to do anything about it – the onboard systems need to be able to do it.”

Lero has research contracts with the European Space Agency to address issues such as this. It has also established strategic research partnerships with over 70 multinational and indigenous companies, including IBM Ireland, Intel, Information Mosaic, JBA Consulting, QAD Ireland, Movidius, Storm Technology and Fineos.

Work with these partners sees the centre support strategically important sectors for Ireland, such as medical devices.

“We are working with a number of medical device companies on software,” Hinchey says, “which will assist them in having their products approved by the US FDA. The software will guide the companies through the approval process.”

He also points out that software itself is now regarded as a medical device and has to be approved. “While medical devices are now very software-intensive, anything which is used to make a decision about a patient, including software, is regarded as a device and is also subject to approval. We help with that process as well.”

Quality location

Lero’s overall goal is to establish Ireland as a location synonymous with high-quality software development.

“Ireland is a very significant player in the software industry, with 100,000 people employed directly in the sector,” he says. “You can multiply that several times to get the number of people whose jobs depend on software. We want our world-class research outputs to contribute to the creation of further jobs and keep the software sector as a great resource for Ireland.

“If we are to maintain our international position in the industry, we need to be at the top of the game in terms of research. And that is our goal at Lero.”