Friday, the last day of the main conference, kicked off with Pamela Zave’s keynote “Software Engineering for the Next Internet”. Unfortunately I missed the first few minutes of the talk. But I regret that, because this was an excellent keynote. Why do I say that? Because Pamela demonstrated a beautiful example of what I want to call “software systems thinking”. By analyzing them from a software engineering perspective, she demonstrated how some of the basic protocols of the internet (eg the Simple Initiation Protocol, SIP), and the standardization process by which they are developed are broken in interesting ways. The reason they are broken is because they ignore software engineering principles. I thought the analysis was compelling: both thorough in terms of the level of detail, and elegant in the simplicity of the analysis.

Here’s some interesting tidbits;

  • A corner case is a possible behaviour that emerges from the interaction of unanticipated constraints. It is undesirable, and designers typically declare it to be rare and unimportant, without any evidence. Understanding and dealing with corner cases is important for assessing the robustness of a design.
  • The IETF standards process is an extreme (pathological?) case of bottom up thinking. It sets an artificial conflict between generality and simplicity, because any new needs are dealt with by adding more features and more documents to the standard. Generality is always achieved by making the design more complex. Better abstractions, and some more top down analysis can provide simple and general designs (and Pamela demonstrated a few)
  • How did the protocols get to be this broken? Most network functions are provided by cramming them into the IP layer. This is believed to be more efficient, and in the IETF design process, efficiency always takes precedence over separation of concerns.
  • We need a successor to the end-to-end principle. Each application should run on a stack of overlays that exactly meets its requirements. Overlays have to be composable. The bottom underlay runs on a virtual network which gets a predictable slice of the real network resources. Of course, there are still some tough technical challenges in designing the overlay hierarchy.

So, my reflections. Why did I like this talk so much? First it had an appealing balance of serious detail (with clear explanations) and new ideas that are based on an understanding of the big picture. Probably it helps that she’s talking about an analysis approach using techniques that I’m very familiar with (some basic software engineering design principles: modularity, separation of concerns, etc), and applies them to a problem that I’m really not familiar with at all (detailed protocol design). So that combination allows me to follow most of the talk (because I understand the way she approaches the problem), but tells me a lot of things that are new and interesting (because the domain is new to me).

She ended with a strong plug for domain-specific research. It’s more fun and more interesting! I agree wholeheartedly with that. Much of software engineering research is ultimately disappointing because in trying to be too generic it ends up being vague and wishy washy. And it misses good pithy examples.

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