Model-based Engineering Dominates Software-Centric Systems Conference

I attended the online edition of Software-Centric Systems Conference (SC2) today. Although I prefer the networking and social aspects of a physical conference, it was nice to enjoy these presentations from the comfort of my couch.

It was interesting to see that most of the conference presentations were related to domain-specific languages (DSLs) in one way or another. There were also presentations about model-based testing and digital twinning. I am not sure if model-based engineering was an intentional theme, or if this is just what is considered interesting in software-centric systems in the Netherlands for the moment. However, this suggests that the applied research into model-based design methodologies done by ESI (TNO) together with its industrial eco-system is highly relevant.

A highlight for myself was the two presentations about the Component Modelling and Analysis (ComMA) DSL. This is not only because it relates to my research on evolvable interfaces, but also because of the main message that the industry can achieve a lot through open innovation in areas that are not their core business, such as specification, verification, and evolution of software interfaces. Great news that ComMA will become open-source in 2021!

DYNAMICS Project in Keynote at Software-Centric Systems Conference

Two months ago, I mentioned that Bits & Chips had published an article about the ComMA (Component Modelling and Analysis) language and how it is being used in Philips and Thales to address challenges related to integration and evolution. The latter part, about semi-automatic detection and correction of interface incompatibilities as interfaces evolve is the topic of the DYNAMICS project, a research project between ESI (TNO) and Thales. This joint story, where two companies from different domains together presented their challenges and how it was addressed by technology developed by ESI was much appreciated by Bits & Chips and was invited as a keynote at the Software-Centric Systems Conference (SC2), which takes place on Thursday November 5. If you are interested in hearing this keynote, please register for the event. All presentations are also available on-demand after the event in case you cannot attend in real time.

Course on Modelling and Analysis of Component-based Systems

A course called “Modelling and Analysis of Component-based Systems” (MOANA-CBS) is being developed in collaboration with Thales as a part of the DYNAMICS project. The course addresses the challenge of overseeing the explosion of possible interactions between asynchronously communicating components in component-based systems. Some of these interactions may be undesirable and leave systems prone to deadlock, livelock, race conditions, and buffer overflows, reducing software quality. The course participants in the course learn how to mitigate this problem by modelling the behavior of components and interfaces using Petri Nets, a well-known formalism suitable for describing asynchronously communicating systems. Theory is linked to practice through demonstrations of relevant examples using the ComMA tool. Using properties and analysis methods for Petri Nets, they learn how to identify patterns in component and interface design that may cause the aforementioned problems, as well as design guidelines for how to avoid them. The course is taught using a combination of lectures, assignments, demonstrations, discussions, and reflection.

We piloted parts of the course at Van der Valk Hotel in Arnhem on October 7 and 8, attended by 12 software architects from Thales and Luminis. The course was positioned as a part of their Accelerate program, which aims to accelerate young architects from the two companies into a more senior role. We felt that the delivery of the course went well and evaluations from the participants suggests it was well-received. The evaluation of this pilot also highlighted some further points for improvement that will be considered going forward.

Component Modelling and Analysis (ComMA) in Bits & Chips

Bits & Chips just published an article about ComMA (Component Modelling and Analysis). ComMA addresses key design and verification challenges for complex systems comprising many components developed by different parties, challenges that are frequently encountered in the high-tech industry across application domains. The challenges are tackled by allowing structure and behavior of component interfaces to be formally specified using a set of domain-specific languages. From this specification, a number of artifacts are automatically generated, including system tests, run-time monitors that detect protocol violations, performance metrics, and documentation. Together, these artifacts reduce the time to design, integrate, and evolve complex high-tech systems, allowing the next generation of these systems to be developed faster and with higher quality.

ComMA was developed by ESI (TNO) in applied research projects with Philips. Successfully proving the approach in an industrial context at Philips has sparked interest from other companies, including Thermo Fisher Scientific, Thales, and Kulicke & Soffa. This eco-system of high-tech companies is expected to increase further as the ComMA tooling becomes open source as part of the Eclipse Foundation.

The article also mentions the applied research project DYNAMICS, for which I am the technical lead. Here, ESI and Thales have been looking at challenges and opportunities related to the evolution of interfaces. The strong point of interfaces is that they abstract from the component providing a particular functionality, allowing it to be changed or even replaced without compromising the overall functionality of the system. However, eventually the interfaces themselves need to be updated to prevent technical debt, and at that point all components relying on that interface are affected simultaneously. In the DYNAMICS project, we study how to automatically detect whether a change to the protocol of an interface is backwards compatible and if this is not the case, semi-automatically generate adapters that bridge the differences with previous versions. The benefit of this approach is that it reduces the time and cost of interface updates, allowing them to evolve faster and avoid creative workarounds that ultimately lead to unreliable systems and lower software quality. If you are interested in reading more about this work and how it leverages ComMA and Petri Net technology to achieve this, read this overview paper from last year.

Comma interfaces open the door to reliable high-tech systems