May 14, 2002

Sustainable Computing Consortium "foolish" if it doesn't embrace open standards

- by Tina Gasperson -
Carnegie Mellon University is expected to
formally announce its "Sustainable Computing Consortium" on May 16th. In order
to make some measurable gains in software quality and security, CMU is hooking up with
big players in IT and software development, and NASA, to look at new techniques
for measuring sustainability. And ironically, all these different companies are
going to put their heads together to brainstorm and collaborate and share ideas
on some, get ready for this, good old proprietary software and intellectual
property
that they'll have to pay a licensing fee for to use outside their own
companies.Carnegie is the school that brings us CERT/CC,
the reporting center for Internet security problems. So any Carnegie-created
consortium dedicated to driving "order of magnitude improvements in software
quality, dependability, and security" has got to be all good. And it probably
is. But people who are used to developing in the open environment fostered by
major universities like Carnegie, MIT, and Berkeley, cringe when they visit the
front page of the SCC Web site
and see a quote from Bill Gates prominently displayed there: "It's time for
developers to think and act differently" along with a plug for an
InformationWeek article talking about Gates' now famous, but as of yet not acted
upon memo about focusing on security. And it forces the question: what is this
consortium really all about?

According to the group's authors, "Consortium members support the creation of
standards and specifications that allow for the measurement and enhancement of
software quality, dependability, and security. Sustainable software encompasses
technology, measurement, policy, economic and market dimensions of software.
The work of the Consortium includes technical efforts to measure and reduce
software-associated risks as well as economic, legal and policy efforts to
manage risk within organizations, the broader markets, and the national
economy."

With recent efforts like the Carrier Grade Linux
Working Group
having demonstrated that an Open Source project like Linux can
be hardened sufficiently for mission critical use by the telecommunications
industry, coupled with the overall good record for security that the operating
system already enjoys, it is natural that OSS and Free Software models should be
a driving force behind the Consortium. Yet, leading Open Source companies who
want to get involved have discovered that the Sustainable Computing Consortium
will operate in a proprietary environment.

The "benefits of membership" listed by the Consortium in its FAQ lays it out:
"Members are entitled to a non-exclusive, internal-use license for the
intellectual property created by the SCC." So what benefit would it be for a
Free Software company to get involved in an environment that prevents them from
using the innovations created in that environment, since the very nature of Open
Source software is that the source code must be offered to those who purchase
software? And it appears that so far, only closed-source companies like Microsoft, Oracle, and others have been recruited by the SCC.

NASA is a big part of the Sustainable Computing Consortium, having granted
Carnegie's computing science department at least $23
million
to look into the whole topic of high-dependability software, hoping
to reap the benefits of the creative effort. NASA has called it a "unique
opportunity to develop an empirically-based science for software dependability,"
and one that "could have a major impact on NASA's ability to rely on complex
software for advanced mission capability." But what of projects like FlightLinux, where rocket scientist
Pat Stakem is developing a special distribution of Linux just for use on
spacecrafts? The FlightLinux project was originally funded through July 2002 and
probably will not continue if NASA decides to focus more on closed-source
models.

"The licensing questions at stake for the university are, I hope, still open,"
says Eben Moglen, general counsel for the Free Software Foundation, "and I look
forward to CMU's reconsideration of a policy that makes no sense and will render
stillborn an otherwise very important and productive venture of great
importance."

Brad Kuhn, v.p. of the Free Software Foundation agrees. "It's a travesty to have
proprietary development happening in an academic environment," since the whole
point of a University is to make knowledge available.

Bill Guttman, the former co-CEO of PrintCafe, is the director of the SCC.
PrintCafe, successful by most measures, makes software specifically for the
printing industry. Guttman grew the company to 500 employees and 4000 customers.
He's also the director of Carnegie's Software Center which, among other things,
focuses on identifying new software development methodologies and business
models. But when he took on that role, the Pittsburgh, PA Post-Gazette labeled
him a "geek
by accident
."

Guttman has a PhD in international business, the article says, but ended up
running software companies because he saw the money in it. He's typical CEO
material: a visionary who is always seeking a way to do things better. And since
the Software Center has been working on finding new development
methodologies, it appears the Open Source/Free Software method of development
didn't come in at first place in Guttman's book. If it had, he'd certainly
select it as the foundation for the Sustainable Computing Consortium.

In fact, a position paper entitled "High Quality and
Open Source Software Practices
" and written by T.J. Halloran of CMU and Bill
Scherlis, who is the co-director of the SCC, expresses reservations about the
suitability of the Open Source software development model in "quality-related
technology." In the conclusion of the paper, they state, "...any technique or
tool is not feasibly adoptable if it requires a major (client-visible) overhaul
of a project web portal, collaboration tools, development tools, or source code
base."

Guttman has told potential Consortium members that the SCC would very much
like to see the Free Software/Open Source community participate in the
project, and he says the group is considering a dual-licensing strategy. Moglen
sees the inclusion of Free Software as vital. "The Consortium cannot succeed
without the participation of the free software community," he says,
"because ours is the development model that will produce high-quality
code in the twenty-first century."

Moglen says that in fact, it is the closed method of software development which
has contributed heavily to the "radical deterioration in average software
quality over the past twenty years, causing hundreds of billions of dollars of
lost time every year from work that disappears when personal computers
crash, fail to exchange data successfully because of incompatible
closed formats, or are disrupted by well-known unfixed security
exposures."

Not only that, but "to attempt construction of an
infrastructure that does what we do without us, in an attempt to
bolster the system of proprietary ownership of software, would be
literally foolish," he says, "and I don't expect it to happen among people as
smart and capable as those presently forming the Consortium."

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