Scottish universities give software longer and healthier lives

Sustained funding by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has assisted researchers at St Andrews and Glasgow Universities to create a new way of building and enhancing computer programs. This can improve efficiency and quality throughout the software industry, including the latest developments on the Internet.

Teams led by Professor Malcolm Atkinson of Glasgow’s Computing Science Department and Professor Ronald Morrison at St Andrews’ School of Mathematical and Computational Sciences have been collaborating for over 15 years to improve the design, construction, maintenance and operation of what they call Persistent Application Systems (PASs). These use software that must evolve over long periods to sustain the applications they support.

‘Most major businesses and public services now depend on their computer software. It is therefore vital that these systems are able to adapt to changing requirements, while continuing to operate reliably and efficiently,’ says Professor Atkinson.

Professor Morrison adds: ‘Developing a major software system is intrinsically complex because it has to control a multitude of tasks in minute detail. This has been made even more difficult by fundamental inconsistencies in the methods used for different aspects, such as programming and database management.’

The Glasgow and St Andrews teams have engineered techniques for a streamlined PAS development environment that overcomes many of these inconsistencies. A key feature of this is known as ‘orthogonality’, a set of design principles which allow programs to handle any type of data, irrespective of how long it has to persist.

An important new long-term EPSRC research project involves the Glasgow team and Sun Microsystems Laboratories in the USA working together to bring orthogonal persistence to Java, Sun’s popular Internet programming system. As part of this project, Cambridge-based Laser-Scan Ltd will examine the value of applying these persistent Java capabilities to its geographical information systems software

EPSRC funding is also enabling Professor Morrison’s group to investigate the use of orthogonal persistence on the World Wide Web. This builds on Napier 88, their pioneering PAS environment, and is exploring the novel concept of ‘hyper- programming’, which facilitates linking new programs to existing data.

The first commercial product based on persistent programming, IT vendor ICL’s ProcessWise Integrator process manager, employs a re-engineered version of the universities’ PS-algol environment, one of their earliest PAS innovations. Professors Atkinson and Morrision have also played prominent roles in projects sponsored by the EU that have greatly assisted their research into orthogonal persistence.