It has been almost a year since we published the first survey-based study in the area of real-time systems at the Real-time Systems Symposium (RTSS) back in December 2020. The paper was entitled “An Empirical Survey-based Study into Industry Practice in Real-time Systems” and had the ambitious goal of addressing the gap between academic research and industry practice through an empirical survey-based study into industry practice. The survey had five objectives: 1) Establish whether timing predictability is of concern to the real-time embedded systems industry, 2) Identify relevant industrial problem contexts, including hardware platforms, middleware, and software, 3) Determine which methods and tools are used to achieve timing predictability, 4) Establish which techniques and tools are used to satisfy real-time requirements, and 5) Determine trends for future real-time systems. The survey was completed by 120 industry practitioners in the field of real-time embedded systems, which allowed interesting observations and insights to be made about the characteristics of the systems being developed today and important trends for the future.
Now, almost one year later, I am happy to announce that an extended version of our RTSS paper has been accepted for publication in the Real-time Systems journal. The title of the article is “A Comprehensive Survey of Industry Practice in Real-Time Systems“. The main extensions in the article include: 1) a discussion of potential threats to validity of the survey and its results, as well as the steps taken to mitigate them, 2) a statistical analysis and discussion of the results of the survey, in the context of its five objectives, 3) a discussion of the results of a quiz aimed at determining if the aggregate findings of the survey are common knowledge in the real-time systems community. In addition, more aggregated data from the survey has been released, allowing interested readers to further delve into the similarities and differences between the avionics, automotive, and consumer electronic domains.
It is my great pleasure to announce that our paper “An Empirical Survey-based Study into Industry Practice in Real-time Systems” has appeared at the 41st IEEE Real-Time Systems Symposium (RTSS). The paper presents results and observations from a survey of 120 industry practitioners in the field of real-time embedded systems. The survey provides insights into the characteristics of the systems being developed today and identifies important trends for the future. The survey aims to inform both academics and practitioners, helping to avoid divergence between industry practice and fundamental academic research.
This work is a dear pet project of mine that has been a long time in the making. Once I joined ESI (TNO), I started reading papers and attending conferences in the modelling community. I came across empirical survey-based research that systematically investigated industry trends, needs and practices, and that studied adoption and perceived benefits and drawbacks of different technologies and methodologies. I immediately found this line of work incredibly useful as it elevated my understanding of what happened in industry from a collection of anecdotes based on conversations with a few people in a few companies to something that could capture the experience of hundreds of people across industrial domains. I also had the feeling that this line of work provided all the citations I needed for the introduction of my papers, as it helped me position my own work on modelling in a broader industrial reality.
Empirical research is an established research direction in social science, but also in technical fields, such as software engineering and to a lesser extent system engineering. However, there was no work like this in the area of real-time systems. I decided to change this and pitched the idea to Rob Davis, Mitra Nasri, and Geoffrey Nelissen and Sebastian Altmeyer during a meeting in Amsterdam in May 2019. They substantially improved on my ideas and did a lot of very good work and almost a year and a half later, the paper is available for you to read. We could not fit everything we had to say into the RTSS paper, so there is also a supporting technical note entitled “A Comprehensive Survey of Industry Practice in Real-time Systems“.
A separate session was dedicated to this work on the last day of RTSS 2020. The session began with a 25 minute paper presentation, which is available here:
The paper presentation was followed by a panel discussion involving three industry practitioners from the three main industrial domains covered by the survey: Marcelo Lopez Ruiz (Microsoft), representing the consumer electronics industry, Simon Schliecker (Volkswagen), representing automotive, and Stephen Law (Rolls-Royce), providing an avionics perspective. The panel discussed four key questions relating to the survey results:
Q1. What important characteristics of real-time systems highlighted in the survey results are the most relevant with respect to your industry? And what other important characteristics are there that were not picked up by the survey?
Q2. What are the most relevant trends in real-time systems development in your industry now, and looking ahead over the next 10 years?
Q3. Did anything surprise you in the survey and its results? And why?
Q4. Given the results of the survey, and your own experience, what recommendations would you to give to the academic community? Which areas should we work more or less on? What assumptions should we make or not make?
The opening statements from the panelists related to the four questions was pre-recorded and followed by a live discussion. The pre-recorded part of the panel is available here:
The session finished after one hour, before there was time to take questions from the audience. A separate Zoom room was created for this purpose and to allow the interaction to continue, which it did for another hour! We were very pleased with the interest in this paper and in the session.
Emerging Research Direction
I hope that this work is the first of many empirical research papers in real-time systems. There are many ways to continue with this line of work. First of all, others need to replicate our results to validate that they hold for different populations. For this purpose, we will be happy to transfer the survey we made on SurveyMonkey, such that it can be reused. Secondly, our survey was very broad and covers real-time systems across many application domains. More specific questions could be obtained if the focus was on a single domain, although the main challenge will be finding enough representative participants with a narrow focus. Thirdly, surveys are only one way of conducting empirical research. Another method sometimes used in software engineering is to use interviews, allowing more in-depth questions to be asked. However, the drawback of this method is that it is more time consuming to interview are large number of participants and to encode and analyze the results.
This direction in real-time system research is just emerging and we hope it will grow and become a well-established part of the research conducted in the community. This would help us better understand the industry we are trying to serve and help us close the gap between academic research and industry practice. A first important step is that this direction is recognized by all main conferences and journals in the area of real-time systems and explicitly included in the call for papers. You can play an important part here by helping us communicate the value of empirical research to others in our community and beyond.