Thursday, May 13, 2010

Saving ERAM -- Chapter 6



Okay. The Limits of Software won’t leave me alone. Perhaps I’m just not used to reading anything that deep anymore and it’s taking a while to process.

”The FAA’s Advanced Automation System project began in 1981, at about the time President Reagan dismissed 11,400 striking air traffic controllers. The timing was not incidental.“

All these years later -- after all the software failures -- the FAA is still chasing the dream of replacing controllers with computers.

”Custom-built, the 9020 (IBM computer) and the NAS monitor were never sold commercially.

The FAA wanted a commercially available multiprocessor that met the air traffic control availability requirements. Put another way, the FAA wanted to buy commercial products and it wanted them highly customized, in this case, for air traffic control.“


If I have digested this book properly, it’s been an education about “code”. Writing computer code -- original code -- that is error free is impossible. Writing code that is almost error free is really expensive. So it seems as if a lot of code is reused. Think about all the stories you heard about the early versions of Windows -- up to about Windows 95. DOS -- the old program -- was running much of it. That isn’t to start an argument about a subject I know little about. It’s to frame the context of this:

”Estimating the work on a linear basis, and assuming the same emphasis is placed on verifying the software, developing the 100 million lines of SDI software would take a thousand years. “

ERAM only has (or was to only have) 1.2 million lines of code. (The link directs you to an article entitled “The Return of Ada”. Interesting, no?) According to Mr. Britcher -- with a dedicated effort -- an organization can write about 100,000 lines of original, reliable code a year. He cautions that “lines of code” is a poor measure of software but it is a tangible that we can latch on to. So, ERAM would take 10 years or so to write. Unless you reuse some code. Or you didn’t rigorously test it.

Perhaps the strangest quote I read in the book came to mind again as I was reading my latest copy of The Atlantic.

”The less software we invent, the better. Software for its own sake will compromise our planet's hygiene as surely as chemicals and missiles.“

When I first read that, I thought it was a terribly strange thought for a guy that wrote programs for a living. But while I was reading yesterday, the quote came back to me.

The Enemy Within

”When the Conficker computer “worm” was unleashed on the world in November 2008, cyber-security experts didn’t know what to make of it. It infiltrated millions of computers around the globe. It constantly checks in with its unknown creators. It uses an encryption code so sophisticated that only a very few people could have deployed it. For the first time ever, the cyber-security elites of the world have joined forces in a high-tech game of cops and robbers, trying to find Conficker’s creators and defeat them. The cops are failing. And now the worm lies there, waiting … “

I wonder if that is what Mr. Britcher was talking about when he said, ”will compromise our planet's hygiene....”?

Don Brown
May 13 . 2010

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