Safety-critical software put under scrutiny

June 19, 2009

Eliminating the potential for catastrophic medical, energy and transportation disasters due to software failure is the aim of a new $21-million global research centre to be located at McMaster University. It will be one of the first such centres in the world.

The Centre for Safety-Critical Software Certification will lead research and development of product-focused certification standards and processes for critical software applications. Applications will initially focus on the operation of pacemakers, health monitoring equipment, banking transactions, financial reporting, and nuclear reactors.

Nineteen researchers from three universities and eight industry partners are involved in the initiative. The university partners are: McMaster University, University of Waterloo and York University. The eight industry partners are: AMD, Atomic Energy Canada, Biosign Technologies, Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology, Legacy Systems International, Ontario Power Generation, QNX Software Systems International, and Systemware Innovation.

The initiative received CDN $6.9 million in funding from the Ontario Research Fund yesterday. It matches funding to be invested by each of McMaster University and industry partners over five years.

"Almost everything we do today relies on software, whether it's making a heart beat properly, transferring funds or generating electricity," said Tom Maibaum, principal investigator for the initiative and Canada Research Chair in Foundations of Software Engineering at McMaster. "Software failure can have catastrophic consequences on our lives and property. This project is about making a major improvement in the way we build safety-critical software applications, and the way in which we evaluate those applications in order to certify them as safe and effective."

The Centre plans to develop product-based methods for verifying software-intensive systems for certification rather than the current process-based methods.

"We believe that the reliance on standards and certification regimes that are process based has contributed to the unpredictable dependability of software-intensive systems," said Alan Wassyng, associate professor of computing and software at McMaster. "This situation has arisen primarily because we do not have the fundamental results necessary to evaluate the dependability of software products based on evidence tied to the product itself."

Tools and methods developed by the Centre will be used and commercialized by industrial partners that market software development tools and expertise, or that specialize in the certification and qualification of software.

"A key aspect of this initiative will be to lay the foundation for products that can be commercialized by the private sector," Mark Lawford, associate professor of computing and software at McMaster. "We will work with our industrial partners to use these commercializable products as certification case studies, thus demonstrating the utility and effectiveness of the tools and methods we develop."

The Centre expects to graduate 10 master's and 20 PhD students, and support four post-doctoral fellows and four research engineers over the next five years. Another 25 to 30 students working with researchers on related projects are also expected to benefit from the program. These highly qualified professionals will continue to evolve certification standards into the future.

McMaster University

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