Why is something needed? - We're about to reach the end of what might be known as the golden age of personal computer software.

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Why is something needed?

Benji Stares, 2001 BjS.

We're about to reach the end of what might be known as the golden age of personal computer software. Like the automobiles of the 1950's, the software of the 1990's delighted and amused us despite its many flaws and shortcomings. In the 1950's what was good for the car industry was good for the US an argument that in ways has applied to the software and "dot com" industries in the 1990's. As with car quality in the 1950's, it is widely argued that it is a disservice to stockholders to make software more reliable than the market has demanded. Instead of solid engineering values, fancy features and horsepower are the two factors used to sell computing systems. While this euphoric era of desktop computing will be remembered fondly by many, its days are numbered.

The current era of desktop computing will pass soon, just as it did for automobiles when the combination of oil shortages and Japanese manufacturing prowess threw Detroit from the leading force in the economy into part of the rust belt. It will only be possible to pin down the triggering factors for demise of the current "golden era" of computer software in retrospect. But, it seems likely that the shift to a new era will involve factors such as the globalization of the software business, the adoption of desktop computers as an essential business tool rather than an occasional productivity enhancer, and the continuing proliferation of computers into embedded systems that form the new infrastructure of our society. The issue of what is eventually said to cause the transition to this new era of computing systems is, however, not as important as the fact that it is inevitable in our changing world.

A central theme of the new era of computing will be an absolute requirement for high dependability (but, without the traditionally exorbitant price tag usually associated with critical systems). Public computing fiascoes such as probes crashing into Mars or on-line services of all sorts going belly up for a hours at a time are only the tip of the iceberg of this need. Every one of us personally experiences computing system meltdowns on a regular basis, and it would be no surprise if our children develop a quick reflex for pressing control-alt-delete before they've memorized their multiplication tables. While stories of bad software killing people are still rare, they exist and may portend the future. The lessons of the Y2K experience are twofold: such problems can indeed be overcome by dint of extraordinary effort and expenditures, but just as importantly, we rely upon computers far more than we fully realize until we're forced to step back and take notice of the true situation.

The point is that enthusiasm for computers has progressed to the point that our society is already completely committed to using them, and is becoming utterly dependent on them working correctly and continuously. But, commercial computer systems, as we currently build them, simply aren't worthy of our unreserved trust and confidence.

A number of related, long-term trends draw attention to the need for HDCC, including:

  • Increased reliance on software to optimize everything from business processes to engine fuel economy
  • Relentlessly growing scale and complexity of systems and systems-of-systems
  • Near-universal reliance on a commodity technology base that is not specifically designed for dependability
  • Growing stress on legacy architectures (both hardware and software) due to ever-increasing performance demands
  • Worldwide interconnectivity of systems
  • Continual threats of malicious attacks on critical systems

There has not been widespread public outcry for better computer systems, but there have been a few persuasive journalistic essays recently:
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There is a pendulum effect in which certain industries alternate between an emphasis on dependability and a quest for new features. In the auto industry, that pendulum reached it's features apex sometime in the 1960's when tail fins counted as important features and Charles Wilson of General Motors suggested to Congress that "What is good for General Motors is good for the country." The pendulum began to swing back when Ralph Nader wrote "Unsafe at Any Speed." Perhaps the apex-defining quote for the computer industry has already been uttered by Guy Kawasaki: "Don't worry be crappy." . We're still waiting for the defining book to be written. Maybe its title should be "Unsafe at Any Clock Speed."

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What is it?

We propose to create a consortium of universities, government agencies, and the High Dependability Computing and Communication Consortiumcorporations to undertake basic, empirical, and engineering research aimed at making the creation and maintenance of computer systems a true professional discipline comparable to civil engineering and medicine disciplines people stake their lives on without question.

It will have a permanent research and education program that transforms computing practices over the next 50 years. The researchers and educators should number about 500 and be contributed by the partners.

It is envisioned to have a central base of operations in the ...

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