Consortium places focus on promoting dependable software

As part of the Sustainable Computing Consortium (SCC), Dr. William Guttman is on a mission to transport software users to another world.

SCC’s mission, according to Guttman, professor of economics and technology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Penn., is to develop a better grasp of measuring, both technically and economically, IT products. It’s about creating software “so that you’re not naked, and not on that ‘use this at your risk’ world that we’re in with respect to IT,” Guttman said.

Established in July 2001, the Consortium has committed more than US$27 million in funding towards sustainable software and industry research. Led by the university, the group provides membership to both corporate IT users and suppliers, software developers, universities and government agencies commercial and non-commercial organizations working to increase the security and quality of software.

Sustainable computing is about developing software, from inception, with quality, dependability and security in mind, according to the SCC. The organization estimates that buggy or defective software accounts for 45 per cent of computer downtime and costs companies in the U.S. alone over US$100 billion per year.

Guttman noted terms such as “quality,” “dependability,” and “security” have been largely defined by IT vendors in marketing terms rather than as technical values. Unlike products such as houses, cars or pharmaceuticals, software historically has been harder to measure. As well, Guttman noted, it has proven to be much more of a black box – difficult to penetrate once the product has been built. This ultimately makes it harder to make assurances about safety and reliability.

“I think that was true of other complex engineered products early in their lifecycle,” Guttman said. “Over time you start to develop enough experience and enough data and you develop tools that allow you to measure things more carefully – you begin to enter a world like we’re familiar with where there are things like warranties and insurance.”

Membership starts at US$5,000 per year. So far, SCC has more than 40 members, including General Motors, NASA and various U.S. government agencies. The multi-year initiative is an international effort, Guttman said, and is gradually reaching out to other countries, including Canada.

Several factors, including the tough economy and the rising popularity of open source software make this a perfect time for the SCC and to create awareness of the need for sustainable computing, Guttman said,.

It’s a cause that all IT companies can get behind, he added. Not not only do members gain access to best practices, tools and methods that the SCC develops, they also get to discuss specific software issues including wireless, security, pervasive computing and the sustainability of the Web.

The focus on reliability and safety is a classic characteristic of a maturing product sector, Guttman noted. The group hopes to exert a lot of influence on the future of IT and software industry.

“Twenty years ago, we never would have had a chance,” Guttman said. “Ten years ago, or even five years ago when it was going gangbusters, people were much more interested in the next new widget or cool gizmo.”

Nowadays, users would gladly trade any number of new features for a guarantee that their software product won’t be full of bugs, he added.