Leading British academics and industrial practitioners have formed a consortium to establish a national strategic coordinated research and training initiative focusing on the science and engineering of Large-Scale Complex Information Technology Systems (LSCITS). Funds of approx £10m have already been committed by the EPSRC, the main UK funding agency for computer systems research. The LSCITS Consortium will work closely with industrial researchers and practitioners, and with workers in related research initiatives. The initial research programme involves an integrated set of work-packages that span a “stack” of complementary approaches to current and future challenges in the science and engineering of LSCITS.
The content on this webpage is also available in two pdf-format LSCITS publicity flyers:
Additional flyers, and related publications, are available here.
The motivation for the LSCITS Initiative is the on-going growth in the size and complexity of information technology (IT) systems. Our ability to develop, maintain and manage such systems is falling behind the growth in their complexity. There is a high risk that we will find ourselves reliant on IT systems that we don’t fully understand and that we cannot effectively manage.
The roots of complexity in IT systems are their increasing size; the increasing involvement of many different organisations in their construction and use; and the increasing rate of business and social change that they have to accommodate. To manage and control complexity, we need better technical tools and methods of system development. We also need a better understanding of the human, social and organisational issues that affect the procurement, development, deployment and use of complex IT systems.
The Initiative will establish a coordinated international network of researchers in industry and academia with the skills and knowledge appropriate to dealing with the problems of current and future LSCITS across their life-cycles. The Initiative’s Training Programme is intended to produce the next generation of systems engineers and technology innovation leaders.
Both the LSCITS Training Programme and the LSCITS Research Programme will bring together academic researchers and industrial practitioners. This flyer gives an overview of the Initiative’s general structure and approach. There are additional flyers giving more details of the LSCITS Training Programme and the Initiative’s Research Programme.
Our aims are to improve existing technical approaches to complex systems engineering and to develop new socio-technical approaches that help us understand the complex interactions between organisations, processes and systems. We will tackle the following problems:
System Understanding. The principal functional and nonfunctional properties of complex IT systems cannot be completely understood by our existing 'reductionist' approaches.
System Interactions. Systems interact with their operational environments in many different ways.
Systems and Organisations. Complex IT systems are specified, developed, used and maintained within organisations that may themselves be thought of as complex systems. The development, deployment, evolution and use of the IT systems is thus influenced by human, organisational, business, social and political factors.
The inherent tension between stability and change in LSCITS requires an approach to research that includes both of these perspectives.
Stability: The system’s essential properties must be maintained, its key variables kept within the limits of system viability, and its goals must be kept in step with the goals of the organisation that it serves.
Change: Agile reaction and adaptation is desirable, reducing the time required to make appropriate changes in response to external pressures and perturbations, and to deploy these changes across organizations.
A key research question is then: how are essential large-scale complex IT system properties maintained in the face of change? There is no easy answer to this, but we must certainly reason at different levels. These include the detailed implementation level, the intermediate level of development and operational processes, and the higher level of organizational dynamics.
The complexity that is inherent in large-scale systems stems from a variety of causes. These systems are often designed to address problems which, by their very nature, cannot be completely defined: they have to meet the (rapidly changing) needs of diverse stakeholders; they must integrate with a range of other legacy systems, processes and policies; they may be critical systems that have to deliver both a high level of performance and dependability; and they are profoundly affected by political influences in the organisations developing and procuring the system, and in the broader system's environment.
While it would be simplistic to suggest that we can solve all of the problems, we believe that we can make significant progress by altering our perspective on the engineering of LSCITS. Rather than considering this to be a problem of specifying, developing, deploying and operating a large-scale system, we believe that we should look at the problem as being a system-of-systems problem. By examining the relationships between the different systems that make up and interact with each other, and the systems involved in procuring, deploying and operating IT systems, we believe that we can make headway in tackling the issue of complexity.
By considering the challenges of LSCITS engineering as a system-of-systems (SoS) problem, it becomes clear that there cannot be a single 'magic bullet' that will solve all the problems of LSCITS engineering. We need to understand and design, in parallel, radically different types of system: from systems of organisational change (which may operate on a timescale of years), to real-time control systems operating at millisecond timescales. We need to improve existing ‘reductionist’ approaches to systems engineering and combine these with socio-technical approaches that take into account human, social and organisational issues and how they affect the system design.
We will therefore work on a coherent integrated “stack” of techniques and approaches, some of which are already in existence, that can address the problems inherent in different types of system. We refer to this as the LSCITS Stack, as illustrated in Figure 1.
The Stack Explained
At the base of the stack is the foundational mathematics of nonlinear systems and of network science. The EPSRC has recently committed £8m to two Doctoral Training Centres (DTCs) for Capacity Building in Complexity Science (CBiCS). The two centres concentrate on the mathematical foundations of complex systems. Directors of these centres are involved in the LSCITS steering committees, and it is expected that some of the CBiCS PhD projects will be of direct relevance to Mathematical Foundations component of the LSCITS Stack. For this reason, the LSCITS Initiative's initial research programme concentrates on the remaining components of the Stack.
Predictable software systems (PSS) involves algorithmic methods for software construction and proof of correctness, based heavily on rigorous mathematics and formal logic, and also on the use of advanced simulation techniques. The focus is on developing techniques to evaluate the dependability and performance of adaptive software systems.
The PSS strand is undertaking foundational research, and the challenge will be to scale the technology to large-scale systems. The High Integrity Software Engineering (HISE) strand will be engaged in complementary research activities, taking an engineering approach to problems of safety-critical large-scale systems. Research activities will include adapting agile processes to safety critical software development, and approaches to certifying autonomous systems. The HISE activities will draw on the results of the PSS strand, as they mature.
In parallel to the techniques developed within PSS and HISE, the past two decades have seen the growing maturity of decentralised and massively parallel autonomic (or “self-star”) approaches to managing LSCITS: such Novel Computational Approaches (NCA) are also accommodated within the Stack.
To address the challenges of current and future LSCITS, there is a need to move beyond the confines of traditional software engineering, to incorporate approaches and findings from sociology, psychology, and management theory, so as to integrate operational and organisational factors into the software engineering process. The Stack component labelled Socio-Technical Systems Engineering (STSE) seeks to do exactly that.
Finally, because LSCITS are frequently created (sometimes inadvertently) to serve large organisations or groups of organisations that are transitioning to electronic documents and automated workflows, there is a general lack of appropriate tools and methods for describing and reasoning about complexity in organisations, whether those organisations are private-sector or public-sector. Addressing this is the role of the Complexity in Organisations (CiO) component.
There are cross-cutting issues that affect all levels in the LSCITS Stack: the need to accommodate change, to maximise agility, and to deal appropriately with various forms of requirements. For example, from PSS we know that formal specification can help define and refine requirements; from HISE we know that testability requirements determine levels of certification and trust; STSE teaches us that requirements also reach out to affect deployment and operational management of systems, and findings in CiO increasingly reveal the impact of organisational influences and constraints. But there is a difficult balance to achieve between integration and exploitation. Industry often finds it easier to exploit point solutions to identified problems, rather than to adopt a new integrated approach. For this reason, while the results at each level in the Stack will be loosely integrated, we do not plan to deliver an integrated LSCITS “package”. Rather, our integrated results will be process-based. There will be easy movement between the processes that address issues at different levels in the Stack. Prof. Ian Sommerville, one of the Initiative’s co-directors, is managing integration across the Initiative, identifying new integration opportunities and ensuring that the work at the different sites does not diverge.
Approximately £1.25m of the EPSRC’s allocation for the LSCITS Initiative’s research programme has been “set aside”, for allocation to work-packages to be specified later in the Initiative. Proposals for the projects funded from the set-aside will be peer-reviewed and decisions made so that additional work-packages can start in 2009. In allocating the set-aside funds, the LSCITS Consortium may add new academic and industrial partners. Inquiries from interested parties are welcome any time.
A collaboration is required to tackle the problem because there is no single university in the UK which includes all of the expertise required to address issues of both stability and change.
The founding members of the LSCITS Consortium are each leading academics, internationally recognised for their research:
A unified collaboration offers significant advantages:
The Initiative is intended to be intimately coupled to the needs of industry, commerce, defence, and the public sector. The initial structure and content of the LSCITS Research Programme and of the LSCITS Training Programme are each the result of extensive consultation with researchers and practitioners in a wide variety of organisations. Over the lifetime of the Initiative, both programmes will be revised on the basis of feedback from ongoing consultation. It is expected that a range of companies and organisations will become involved as sponsors of research and training within the Initiative as it progresses. Links to our industrial partners can be found here.
Approaches and offers of involvement from prospective additional industrial partners and sponsors are always welcome.
The LSCITS International Scientific Advisory Board (ISAB) advises on the scientific quality of the Initiative’s research activities from a worldwide perspective. It is composed of leading researchers in the science and engineering of LSCITS drawn from academic and industrial organisations around the globe. The ISAB includes members from Carnegie-Mellon University, Hewlett-Packard Labs, IBM Labs, MIT, and the universities of Toronto, Queensland, and Dortmund. The founding ISAB Chair is Professor Cliff Jones, of Newcastle University, UK. A full listing of the members of the ISAB is here.
The LSCITS National Stakeholder Board (NSB) exists to ensure that the LSCITS Initiative best meets the national need, and is integrated appropriately with related organisations, programmes and initiatives in the UK. Members of the NSB include representatives from companies such as BAE Systems, British Telecom, and Rolls-Royce; from UK public-sector organisations such as the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Health, and the EPSRC funding agency; and from directors of related UK initiatives such as the two UK Complexity Science doctoral training centres, and the UK’s defence Software Systems Engineering Initiative (SSEI). The founding NSB Chair is Dr Mark Thomas of IBM UK. A full listing of the members of the NSB is here.
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