Thursday, December 28, 2017

Funding agencies, are you listening? How to build an unsuccessful research center

In 2014, my colleague David Patterson had a CACM Viewpoint entitled How to Build a Bad Research Center, offering tongue-in-cheek bad advice to build a research center that's unlikely to produce breakthrough work. Dave used the recent wrap-up of the Berkeley Parallel Computing Lab (ParLab) as a case study in building a successful center, following a pattern used by many successful centers for which Dave had been a PI or co-PI.

About a year ago (I'm behind in my reading), Jesper Larsson Träff, a parallel computing researcher at TU Wien, wrote an eerily similar Viewpoint on (Mis)managing Parallel Computing Research Through EU Project Funding, which makes the point that the bureaucracy and heavyweight project management style required for multinational EU Projects (solicited regularly by the European Commission), including reliance on artificial "deliverables" that seldom correlate with actual research breakthroughs, thwart efforts to do groundbreaking work.

Reading Träff's litany of bad research-management practices, it's almost as if the EU Project commission read the "Eight Commandments for a Bad Center" in Dave's article, but failed to realize they were supposed to be satirical. Both Dave's and Jesper's short pieces are well worth reading in their entirety, and if you're pressed for time, I hope these side-by-side representative quotes from each may convince you to do so:

Patterson: "Bad Commandment #2: Expanse is measured geographically, not intellectually. For example, in the U.S. the ideal is having investigators from 50 institutions in all 50 states, as this would make a funding agency look good to the U.S. Senate."

Träff: "…the enforced geographical and thematic spread among consortium members in reality means that time and personnel per group is often too small to pursue serious and realistic research."

Patterson: "Bad Commandment 8. Thou shalt honor thy paper publishers. Researchers of research measure productivity by the number of papers and the citations to them. Thus, to ensure center success, you must write, write, write and cite, cite, cite."

Träff: "As part of the dissemination activities it is important for all consortium members to show regular presence at various associated, often self-initiated workshops and conferences, including meetings and workshops of other projects; high publication output is encouraged … The primary purpose of many of these activities is to meet the dissemination plans [deliverables], and has led to a proliferation of workshops presenting and publishing project-relevant trivialities. Apart from the time this consumes, the apparent authority of a workshop masquerading as a scientific event at a well-established conference may reinforce docility and low standards in the naive Ph.D., and appall and deter the more observant one."

Patterson: "A key to the success of our centers has been feedback from outsiders. Twice a year we hold three-day retreats with everyone in the center plus dozens of guests from other institutions [including industrial partners]. Having long discussions with outsiders often reshapes the views of the students and the faculty, as our guests bring fresh perspectives… Researchers desperately need insightful and constructive criticism, but rarely get it. During retreats, we are not allowed to argue with feedback when it is given; instead, we go over it carefully on our own afterward."  Note: In the Berkeley research center model, industrial affiliates pay a fee to participate in the project.

Träff: "…in many cases industrial involvement makes a lot of sense. However, it seems confusing at best to (ab)use scientific research projects to subsidize European (SME) industry. Can't this be done much more effectively by direct means? In any case, it would be more transparent and less ambiguous if industrial participation in EU projects was not directly funded through the projects. Strong projects would be interesting enough that industry would want to participate out of its own volition, which in particular should be the case for large businesses."  Note: In the EU Project research center model, public funds are used to pay private companies to participate in the project.

Träff closes his article with some suggestions for moving towards a "radically better" funding model for European high-performance computing research. In this section, unsurprisingly, Träff and Patterson find themselves in agreement:

Träff: "[P]roposals and projects to a larger extent [should] be driven by individual groups with a clear vision and consortium members selected by their specific project-relevant expertise. It would make long-term scientific, and perhaps even commercial sense to make it possible and easy to extend projects that produce actual, great results or valuable prototypes…more possibilities for travel grants and lightweight working groups to foster contacts between European research groups, and more EU scholarships for Ph.D. students doing their Ph.D. at different European universities would also be welcome additions."

Patterson: "After examining 62 NSF-funded centers in computer science, the researchers found that multiple disciplines increase chances of research success, while research done in multiple institutions—especially when covering a large expanse—decreases them: 'The multi-university projects we studied were less successful, on average, than projects located at a single university. ... Projects with many disciplines involved excelled when they were carried out within one university  (J. Cummings and S. Kiesler, Collaborative research across disciplinary and organizational boundaries, Social Studies of Science 35, 5 (2005), 703–722.)"

While the two pieces don't overlap 100%, there are great lessons to be learned from reading both.

The question is whether the responsible funding agencies are reading them.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

"The Death of Big Software"

The current edition of our ESaaS textbook makes the case that as early as 2007, Jeff Bezos was pushing Amazon towards an "API only" integration strategy, in which all services would have to be designed with externalizable APIs and all inter-service communication (even inside the company) would have to occur over those APIs.  We pointed out that this service-decomposition approach to designing a large service—i.e. compose it from many microservices—was one of the first highly-visible successes of "service-oriented architecture," which in 2011 had begun to acquire a reputation as a content-free buzzphrase bandied by technomarketeer wanna-be's. Indeed, I've recently reported on other CACM pieces extolling the benefits of microservices-based architecture and how such an organization enables a more agile approach to Dev/Ops.

As we reported in ESaaS, enormous monolithic projects (the opposite of SOA) fail too often, are too complex to manage, and so on. Since small agile teams (Bezos calls them "2-pizza teams") work best on modest-sized projects, all the more reason to decompose a very large service into its component parts, and put a small agile team on each part. But a Viewpoint (op-ed) article in the December 2017 CACM goes farther and asserts simply that "big" monolithic software systems are dead.  In addition to the execution problems, big monolithic systems, with their implied vendor lock-in and very long development cycles, are anathema to a nimble business. And the advent of inexpensive cloud computing removed an important deployment obstacle to "going SOA", since a multi-component app could be deployed and accessed from anywhere, even if the components came from different vendors.

All of which is to say that the time is more than ripe for the Second Edition of ESaaS (probably coming sometime next year) to take an "API first" approach to service design: rather than thinking in terms of an app and its features, for the architecture design phase think in terms of resources (in the REST sense) and operations you want to expose on them. Expect a thoroughly revamped discussion of SaaS architecture including a précis of the last 5-8 years of evolution, quickly accelerating from the early stumbling blocks of SOAP-based SOA through the growth of simple HTTP/XML/JSON-based RESTful services and now to an "API first" microservices design approach.  SwaggerHub, here we come!

Berkeley SaaS course Demo Day Competition winners!

In the Berkeley campus version of the ESaaS course (Computer Science 169, Software Engineering), which typically enrolls anywhere from 100 to 240 students working in teams of six, we used to have an end-of-semester poster session where every team would have a poster about their project. While it made for a lively event, it was hard for me (the instructor) to spend more than a few minutes at each poster. Of course, there are many other project deliverables, so the grade didn't really depend very heavily on the poster, but I still felt that it was a hurried and stressful process that could stand to be improved.

Last summer, Cal alumna Carina Boo, who had previously served as a TA for this course and is now a full-time software engineer at Google, was hired to guest-teach the course over the summer. It was very successful, and one of her innovations was to substitute an optional Demo Day Competition for the poster session. Participation would be completely voluntary and not carry any extra-credit points; each team would have up to a 10-minute slot to both discuss the challenges/lessons learned from the experience of working with their customer and to present some technical discussion of challenges in their app that would impress a panel of three judges who are all full-time software engineers as well as former students and former TAs of this course (Kevin Casey, now at Facebook, and Tony Lee, now at Splunk).

I decided to adopt this format for this semester as well, and it worked so well that I believe I'll keep it for future semesters. 9 out of 21 teams signed up completely voluntarily to give 10-minute presentations, and some of their customers showed up as well to offer an endorsement of the team’s work. The presentations and the work represented by them were uniformly excellent, and I’m pleased to congratulate the winners here:

1st place: Berkeley MarketPlace, a Berkeley-exclusive C2C buyer and seller market (also won Best UI/UX subcategory). Congratulations to Jiazhen Chen, Shuyin Deng, Amy Ge, Yunyi Huang, Ashton Teng, Jack Ye

2nd place: ESaaS Engagements, an app to track ESaaS customers across different institutions. Congratulations to Sungwon Cho, Joe Deatrick, Kim Hoang, Dave Kwon, Kyriaki Papadimitriou, Julie Soohoo.

Runner up: Berkeley Student Learning Center, an app to help schedule tutoring sessions. Congratulations to Jennifer Be, Haggai Kaunda, Maiki Rainton, Nah Seok, Salvador Villegas, Alex Yang.

Most Technically Challenging: a tie between two projects that the judges considered to have surmounted unusually tough technical challenges:
  • iC-uC, a lab app for optometry students  help model eye geometry and vision for the UC Berkeley Optometry School. The app had to integrate a Matlab terminal and graphs with a Java wrapper and a Rails front-end.  
  • Audience1st, a ticketing and backoffice app used by various community theaters in the Bay Area. Among the features added was the online migration of the entire authentication system to OmniAuth, without disturbing the existing login experience, and without access to customers’ current passwords.