Originally created 05/17/02

Professors in search of more reliable software



Carnegie Mellon University professors Bill Guttman and Bill Scherlis want to make computer software more reliable.

As simple as that sounds, their task is a complicated one. As more people rely on software to bank, shop and do business, the frequency of breakdowns is causing problems that have yet to be fully measured, studied or solved.

Guttman and Scherlis are tackling the dependable computing problem in an unprecedented way - by forming a consortium of university, government and business leaders to make computing systems reliable enough for people to trust with their lives and livelihoods.

Not only do they have the nation's No. 1 computer science school behind the effort, dubbed the Sustainable Computing Consortium, but they also have a list of big-name businesses willing to help with the task.

The consortium members include AIG, Alcoa, Caterpillar, Cisco Systems, CMP Media, Confluence, General Atlantic Partners, Mellon Financial Corp., Microsoft, Pfizer, RedSiren Technologies, Pittsburgh law firm Reed Smith, Tata and UPMC Health System. There are more than 20 founding members, each of which has agreed to pay the consortium $25,000 annually for five years.

The hope is the research among consortium members will help assess the risks and costs of computer failures, which some people suggest may be costing U.S. companies more than $100 billion annually, as well as exploring the possibility of accepted standards for the software industry.

In forming the consortium, Carnegie Mellon is also addressing the vulnerability of this country's computer systems, post Sept. 11. Everything from air traffic control to Pentagon defense systems relies on software to work properly.

"By failing to improve the quality of the software we develop," warned a 1999 information technology industry report to President Clinton, "we put the nation at risk."

Carnegie Mellon's decision to create a new consortium to tackle this issue stems from its relationship with NASA, which earlier this year tapped the university to direct a $23.3 million program to improve the space agency's ability to create dependable computer software.

In space, the failure of computer software often can be spectacular, such as when NASA lost two Mars probes within months of each other in 1999. The Mars Climate Orbiter burned up when engineers programming its navigation unit confused English measurements for metric ones. Its companion, the Mars Polar Lander, crashed a few months later when its computer shut down its engines before it reached the ground.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com.)