Software's Chronic Crisis

Software's Chronic Crisis,10.1038/scientificamerican0994-86,Scientific American,W. Wayt Gibbs

Software's Chronic Crisis   (Citations: 361)
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Denver's new international air port was to be the pride of the Rockies, a wonder of modern engineering. Twice the size of Manhattan, 10 times the breadth of Heathrow, the airport is big enough to land three jets simultaneously-in bad weather. Even more impressive than its girth is the airport's subterranean baggage-handling system. Tearing like intelligent coal-mine cars along 21 miles of steel track, 4,000 independent "telecars" route and deliver luggage between the counters, gates and claim areas of 20 different airlines. A central nervous system of some 100 computers networked to one another and to 5,000 electric eyes, 400 radio receivers and 56 bar-code scanners orchestrates the safe and timely arrival of every valise and ski bag. At least that is the plan. For nine months, this Gulliver has been held captive by Lilliputians-errors in the software that controls its automated baggage system. Scheduled for takeoff by last Halloween, the airport's grand opening was postponed until December to allow BAE Automated Systems time to flush the gremlins out of its $193-million system. December yielded to March. March slipped to May. In June the airport's planners, their bond rating demoted to junk and their budget hemorrhaging red ink at the rate of $1.1 million a day in interest and operating costs, conceded that they could not predict when the baggage system would stabilize enough for the airport to open. To veteran software developers, the Denver debacle is notable only for its visibility. Studies have shown that for every six new large-scale software systems that are put into operation, two others are canceled. The average software development project overshoots its schedule by half; larger projects generally do worse. And some three quarters of all large systems are "operating failures" that either do not function as intended or are not used at all. Photo of Dallas International Baggage Handling System: SOFTWARE GLITCHES in an automated baggage-handling system force Denver International Airport to sit empty nine months after airplanes were to fill these gates and runways (top). The system that is supposed to shunt luggage in 4,000 independent "telecars" along 21 miles of track still opened, damaged and misrouted cargo as testing continued in July (bottom). The art of programming has taken 50 years of continual refinement to reach this stage. By the time it reached 25, the difficulties of building big software loomed so large that in the autumn of 1968 the NATO Science Committee convened some 50 top programmers, computer scientists and captains of industry to plot a course out of what had come to be known as the software crisis. Although the experts could not contrive a road map to guide the industry toward firmer ground, they did coin a name for that distant goal: software engineering, now defined formally as "the
Journal: Scientific American - SCI AMER , vol. 271, no. 3, pp. 86-95, 1994
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