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Posts Tagged ‘economics’

Socrates 2014 unconference in the UK

June 17th, 2014 2 comments

I was at the Socrates unconference at the end of last week. An uncofrenece is a conference with no prearranged speakers, the attendees turn up and some of them volunteer to talk about a topic of their choosing on the day. The talks were structured as half a dozen parallel sessions of an hour each in rooms dotted around two different buildings.

I had previously been to half a dozen or so of the London Software Craftsmanship meetups (there is a large overlap in the organizers of the two groups) and thought I had some understanding of how the community went about building software engineering knowledge. At the end of the first day this understanding underwent a major revamp (the arts and craft movement struck me as something of a parallel).

Based on the experience of one meeting I would say that the Socrates’ community approach to achieving the goals laid out in the Manifesto for Software Craftsmanship (as exemplified by those present at unconference) is primarily a social one based on personal experiences and shared experiences communicated through meetings and pair programming (yes, pair programming).

A great deal of pair programming was constantly going on and a person’s recent experience of pairing with somebody-or-other was a perfectly natural topic to bring up in casual conversation. I have never seen this kind of widespread community practice of interaction on a detailed before; I think it is great and I hope it spreads.

I volunteered to talk Friday morning about “When is it worth investing in reducing maintenance costs?” (I now have more data than used in my blog post on the topic). The talk did not go well in the sense that while people appeared to understood the analysis they did not seem to understand why anybody would want to use the decision making approach proposed. I got the same impression from people who asked me about the topic during food breaks (I had given a lightening talk Thursday evening with about half the attendees present).

The argument I made was that improving software is an investment intended to reduce future maintenance activities; like all investments the person making it wants receive a worthwhile return on the risk they are taking. The talk derived a requirement on the investment/benefit ratio needed for a code improvement activity to at least break even.

Now I am not always the world’s greatest communicator, so peoples’ lack of understanding may have been down to poor presentation on my part. But, in the evening, thinking about everything I had seen during the day I realised that my proposal for driving code improvement decisions using an economic model ran counter to the spirit of software craftsmanship as practiced by those present. This is not to say that the software craftsman are anti-economics, but that they want to be proud of their work and require that it meet certain personal and community standards, which may mean being less than economically efficient in some cases. At your average developer conference I would have expected zero interest, but here I had made the mistake of underestimating the strong craft influence and the socially derived approach (rather than trying to use experimental evidence) to finding solutions to software engineering problems.

There were a handful of people at the meeting interested in working towards a scientific approach to obtaining solutions to software engineering problems, i.e., using evidence derived from experiments. At one of the sessions a small group of us talked about how the software craftsman community might help researchers interested in experimental research (perhaps by helping to find professional subjects or by being willing to spend time discussing industry problems). I made my usual appeal for data that could be made public.

I suspect that many software craftsman would be interested in monitoring their own performance and that it would be worthwhile providing pointers to tools and techniques that might be used. Watch this space for progress.

The most interesting session I went to was by Steve Hayes who talked about his experience of starting and running a transparent company (this involves making information that companies usually keep confidential, such as employee, public). I had read about such companies before but this was my first encounter with somebody who had done it in practice.

The event appeared to run itself very smoothly, probably as much due to the invisible hard work of the organizers as much as the more visible attendee work. I would recommend the host venue, Farncombe conference centre, to anyone wanting to run a conference with lots of breakout rooms and social spaces. The food was high quality and artistically presented, demanding that both desserts on the menu be consumed.

Anybody who is in a rush to experience a Socrates unconference can visit Germany in August (a contingent from the UK are already booked).

Only compiler vendor customers, not its users, count

January 23rd, 2013 3 comments

The hardest thing about working on compilers is getting somebody to pay you to do it (its a close run race against having the cpu instructions chop and change under you during initial development, but that’s another story). The major shift of compiler vendor business model from proprietary to open source has significant implications for users of compilers. Note I said user not customer, only one of them pays money. Under the commercial model there was usually a very direct connection between compiler user and customer (even in large organizations users rather than the manager who makes the purchase decision are often regarded by vendors as the customer), while under the Open source model most users are not customers (paying money for a distribution does not make you a customer of the people maintaining the compiler who probably don’t receive any of the money you spent).

Like all good businesses compiler vendors don’t want to make their customers unhappy. There is one way guaranteed to make all customers so unhappy that they will remember the experience for years; ship a new compiler release that breaks their existing code (this usually happens because their is a previously undetected bug in the code or because use is being made of an implemented defined/undefined part of the language {the compiler gets to decide what to do when it encounters such code}). Not breaking existing customer code is priority ONE in any commercial compiler development group.

Proprietary vendors have so many customers its almost impossible for them to know in advance what changes will break existing code and the only option is to be ultra conservative about adding new code optimizations (new optimizations can so easily change how source containing undefined behavior is processed). Ultra conservative is the polite term, management paranoia would be more accurate. There is another advantage to vendors for not breaking their customers’ code, they are protected against competition by new market entrants; a new vendor with a shiny go faster compiler doing all the optimizations the existing vendor was not willing to do in case it broke existing code will quickly find out that the performance improvements they offer are rarely big enough to tempt potential customers to switch compilers. Really, the only time companies switch compiler is when they have to port to a new platform to make a sale or their existing vendor goes bust.

Open source vendors (e.g., those commercially involved in support/maintenance of gcc or llvm) have relatively few customers (e.g., big companies paying them lots of money for specific reasons) and as always these customers want existing code to continue to work. If the customer is paying for a code generator for a previously unsupported processor then there probably isn’t any existing code for that processor; it is a fact of life that porting source to a new processor always involves work. Some Linux distributors (e.g., Suse and Redhat) are customers in the sense that they pay the salary of developers who spend a lot of their time in compiler maintenance/upgrades and presumably work to try and ensure that the code in their respective Linux distributions does not get broken.

Compiler users who are not customers don’t count on the code breakage front (well, count for very very little, if an update broke lots of different developers’ code and enough fuss was made there might well be an update than unbroke the previous one).

What can a user do if code that used to work ok is broken when compiled with a later version of the compiler? The obvious answer is to continue using the older version that produces the desired behavior, fixing the code causing the problem is a better answer (but might involve a lot of work). There is no point in flaming the compiler developers, you are not contributing towards their upkeep; Open source does not give users the consideration that a customer enjoys.

Ternary radix will have to wait for photonic computers

July 9th, 2012 2 comments

Computer cpu economics suggest that a ternary radix representation rather than binary should be used for representing integer values. The economic cost of a cpu is is roughly proportional to r*w, where r is the integer radix and w is the width, in bits, of the basic integer type (for simplicity I’m assuming there is only one and that the bus width has the same value); the maximum value that can be represented is r^w.

If we fix the maximum representable value M = r^w and ask which value of r minimises r*w, then we need to differentiate {r ln M}/{ln r} w.r.t. r, giving ln M (1/{ln r} - r/{r (ln r)^2}) and this equals 0 when r = e (the closest integer to e is 3).

The following plot shows the maximum representable value (right point of horizontal line) that can be achieved for a given ‘cost’ when the radix is 2 and 3.

Binary/Ternary complexity vs maximum representable value

The reason binary is used in practice is purely to do with the characteristics of power consumption in electronic switching circuits (originally vacuum tube and then transistor based). Electrical power is proportional to voltage times current and a binary circuit can be implemented by switching between states where either the voltage or the current is very small, in either of these two states the power consumption is very low; it is only during the very short transition period switching between them, when the voltage and current have intermediate values, that the power consumed is relatively high. A 3-state switch would need a voltage/current combination denoting a state other than 0/1, and any such combination would consume non-trivial amounts of power (tri-state devices are used in some situations).

I have little idea about the complications of storing ternary values in memory systems, but I guess there will be complications.

In the 1960′s the Setun computer used a ternary radix and there has been the odd experimental systems since.

Are there any kinds of switching circuit whose use is not primarily dictated by device power characteristics and hence might be used to support a ternary radix? One possibility is a light based cpu (i.e., using photons rather than electrons), using polarization to specify state has been proposed. What about storage? Using Josephson junctions could provide the high speed and low power consumption required (we just need somebody to discover a room temperature superconductor).

The technology needed to build a practical cpu using a ternary radix appears to be some years in the future.

What about all the existing code containing a myriad of dependencies on the characteristics of two’s complement integer representation? If a photonic cpu became available that was ten times faster than existing cpus, or consumed 10 times less power or some combination thereof, then I’m sure here would be plenty of economic incentive to get software running on it. The problem is that 10 times better cpus are unlikely to just turn up, they will probably need to be developed in steps and the economics of progressing from step to step don’t look good.

While our civilization is likely to continue on down the binary rabbit hole, another one may have started down, or switched to, the ternary hole. I hope the SETI people are not to blinkered by the binary view of the universe.

Why do companies fix faults in software they sell?

June 1st, 2012 No comments

Once I buy some software from a company they have my money, if sometime later I find a fault software what incentive does that company have to fix the software and provide me with an update (assuming the software is not so fault ridden that I take advantage of laws allowing me to return a purchase for a refund)?

There are three economic incentives for companies to fix faults:

  • because I am paying them a fee for updates that include fixes to known faults,
  • because they want to make future sales to me and to others (faults encountered by customers contribute towards the perception of product quality),
  • they don’t want to loose money because a fault had consequences that resulted in legal action (this reason is overhyped, in practice software engineering has a missing dead body problem).

Which faults get fixed? Software is surprisingly fault tolerant and there is no point in fixing faults that customers are unlikely to encounter. This means that once a product has been released and known to be acceptable to many customers there is no incentive to actively search for faults; this means that the only faults likely to be fixed are the ones reported by customers.

When reporting a fault customers are often asked to rate its severity. This is a useful technique for prioritizing what gets fixed first or perhaps what does not get fixed at all. Customers who actively set out to find faults are not appreciated and are labeled as disruptive if they continue doing it. Finding faults is surprisingly easy, finding the faults that have a high probability of being encountered by customers and ranked by them as critical is very hard (this is one of the reasons static analysis tools are not widely used).

What is the motivation for developers to fix faults in Open Source?

  • There are companies who provide support services for a fee, just like commercial offerings,
  • Open Source is free, gaining more users is not an obvious incentive to fix faults. However, being known as the go-to guys for a given package is a way of attracting companies looking to hire somebody to provide support services or make custom modifications to that package. Fixing faults is a way of getting visibility, it is advertising.
  • Developers hate the thought of doing something wrong resulting in a fault in code they have written and writing faulty code is not socially acceptable behavior in software development circles. These feelings about what constitutes appropriate behavior are often enough to make developers want to spend time fixing faults in code they have written or feel responsible for, provided they have the time. I suspect a lot of faults get fixed by developers when their manager/wife thinks they are working on something more ‘useful’.

Licensing to decide the result of gcc vs llvm?

December 17th, 2011 No comments

I was not surprised to hear today that Nvidia are halting development of their in-house C/C++ compiler and switching to one of the Open Source compilers. It is a lot cheaper to have one or two people looking after a companies interests in a compiler developed by somebody else than having an in-house development group. It will be interesting to see how much longer Intel continues to fund their in-house compiler.

Nvidia chose llvm and gave a variety of technical reasons why this was the best choice over gcc.

One advantage (from Nvidia’s point of view) not mentioned is that llvm is licensed under a BSD style agreement. This means Nvidia don’t have to release the source code of any modifications or additions they make (they said these will be kept closed source); gcc is licensed under the GNU general public license which requires source to be released. Arch rivals AMD (well, the ATI bit of AMD that does graphics hardware) also promote llvm and I’m sure Nvidia does not want to help them in any way.

The licensing difference between gcc and llvm has the potential to make a big differences to the finances of both development teams.

My understanding of gcc funding is that most of it comes from back-end work (i.e., a company pays to have gcc work or do a better job on some [I imagine their] processor). Given a choice would these companies rather release the source they paid to have written/modified or keep it closed? Some probably don’t care and hope that by making the source available others will help find and fix problems (i.e., there is a benefit to making it available), on the other hand companies introducing processors with fancy new features will want to minimise any technology that competitors can get for free.

In the years to come it is possible that gcc will loose a significant amount of this back-end income to llvm because of licensing.

PhD projects are the life-blood of new compiler optimization techniques and for many years source code from them has often ended up as the experimental version of a new optimization phase of gcc. Many students are firm believers in making source freely available and shy away from being involved in non-GPL projects. Will this deter them from using llvm in their research (there may be a growing trend favoring llvm over gcc in research, or the llvm people may be better than the gcc folk at marketing {not hard})?

If llvm does not get the new fancy optimizations for ‘free’ they are going to have to spend money doing the implementing themselves or have their performance slowly fall behind that of gcc. Will this cost be more or less than the additional income from closed source customers?

We are unlikely to know the impact that licensing has on the fortunes of both compilers until the end of this decade. Perhaps designing and building new processor will not be economically worthwhile in 10 years, perhaps all the worthwhile optimizations will be done. We will have to wait and see.

Update 4 Jan 2012: Video (235M) of talk on status of effort to make llvm the default compiler in FreeBSD at LLVM 2011 Developer’s meeting.

ISO Standards, the beauty and the beast

February 14th, 2011 No comments

Standards is one area where a monopoly can provide a worthwhile benefit. After all the primary purpose of a standard for something is having just the one document for everybody to follow (having multiple standards because they are so useful is not a good idea). However, a common problem with monopolies is that charge a very inflated price for their product.

Many years ago the International Standard Organization settled on a pricing scheme for ISO Standards based on document page count. Most standards are very short and have a very small customer base, so there is commercial logic to having a high cost per page (especially since most are bought by large companies who need a copy if they do business in the corresponding application domain). Programming language standards do not fit this pattern, often being very long and potentially having a very large customer base.

With over 18,500 standards in their catalogue ISO might be forgiven for overlooking the dozen or so language standards, or perhaps they figured there is as much profit in charging a few hundred pounds on a few sales as charging less on more sales.

How does the move to electronic distribution effect prices? For a monopoly electronic distribution is an opportunity to make more profit, not to reduce prices. The recently published revision of the Fortran Standard is available for 338 Swiss francs (around £232) from ISO and £356 from BSI (at $351 the price from ANSI in the US is similar to ISO’s). Many years ago, at the dawn of the Internet, members of the US C Standard committee were able to convince ANSI to sell electronic copies at a reasonable rate ($30) and this practice has continued ever since (and now includes C++).

The market for the C and C++ Standards is sufficiently large that a commercial publisher (Wiley) was willing to take the risk of publishing them in book form (after some prodding and leg work by the likes of Francis Glassborow). It will be interesting to see if a publisher is willing to take a chance on a print run of the revised C Standard due out in a few years (I think the answer for the revised C++ Standard is more obvious).

Don’t Standards bodies care about computer languages? Unfortunately we are thorn in their side and they would be happy to be rid of us (but their charter’s do not allow them to do this). Our standards take much longer to produce than other standards, they are large and sales are almost non-existent (at ISO/BSI prices). What is more many of those involved in creating these standards actively subvert ISO/BSI sales by making draft documents, that are very close to the final copyrighted versions, freely available over the Internet.

In a sense ISO programming language standards exist because the organizational structure requires them to accept our work proposals and what we do does not have a large enough impact within the standards world for them to try and be rid of those tiresome people whose work is so far removed from what everybody else does.

Predictions for 2009

December 31st, 2008 No comments

If the shape of code does change over time, it changes very slowly. Styles become more or less popular, but again the time-scale is generally longer than a year. Anyway, here are my predictions for goings on the in the community that shapes code.

1) Functional programming will continue to entrance the young whose idealism will continue to be dashed when they have to deal with the real world. Ok, I started with something obvious that will still be true in 20 years and I promise not to to to keep repeating myself on this one every year.

2) The LLVM project will die. I am surprised that it has lasted this long, but it is probably costing Apple so little that it is not on management’s radar. Who needs another C compiler; perhaps 10 years ago they could have given the moribund gcc project a run for its money, but an infusion of keen people and a complete reworking of its internals has kept gcc as the leading contender to be the only C compiler developers use in 10 years time.

3) Static analysis will go mainstream. The driving force will not be developers loosing their aversion to being told of their mistakes, but because the world’s economic predicament will force them to deliver better performance in less time, ie they will be forced to use tools to help them find coding faults. The fact that various groups are starting to add hooks to the mainstream compilers (e.g., Microsoft’s Phoenix, gcc’s Dehydra), ensuring compatibility with an existing code base and making it easier for developers use, also helps. The gcc people may yet shoot themselves in the foot. Of course people will continue to develop new stand-alone tools and extract money from government to do something that sounds useful.

4) Natural language programming will finally gain a foothold. One of the big unnoticed announcements of the year was the Attempto project releasing the source code of their controlled English system.

5) The rate of gcc’s progress to world domination will accelerate. There are still quite a few market niches where gcc is a minority player (eg, embedded systems) and various compilers need to disappear for it to gain market share. Compiler writing has never been a very profitable business and compiler companies usually go bust or are taken over by hardware vendors looking for customer lock-in. The current economic situation means that compiler companies are both more likely to go bust and to not be brought, ie, their compilers will (commercially) disappear.

6) The number of people involved in writing software will continue to decline in the West and increase in the East. These days there is not a lot of difference in cost between east/west, it is the quality of developers (or rather there are more of a reasonable standard available). The declining standards in science/engineering education is the driving factor, the economic situation is just creating extra exposure.