About the Project

The smooth functioning of society is critically dependent not only on the correctness of programs, particularly of programs controlling critical and high-sensitivity core components of individual systems, but also upon correct and robust interaction between diverse information-processing ecosystems of large, complex, dynamic, highly distributed systems. Failures are common, unpredictable, highly disruptive, and span multiple organizations.

The scale of systems’ interdependence will increase by orders of magnitude in the next few years. Indeed by 2020, with developments in Cloud, the Internet of Things, and Big Data, we may be faced with a world of 25 million apps, 31 billion connected devices, 1.3 trillion tags/sensors, and a data store of 50 trillion gigabytes (data: IDC, ICT Outlook: Recovering Into a New World, #DR2010_GS2_JG, March 2010). Robust interaction between systems will be critical to everyone and every aspect of society. Although the correctness and security of complete systems in this world cannot be verified, we can hope to be able to ensure that specific systems, such as verified safety-, security-, or identity-critical modules, are correctly interfaced.

The recent success of program verification notwithstanding, there remains little prospect of verifying such ecosystems in their entireties: the scale and complexity are just too great, as are the social and managerial coordination challenges. Even being able to define what it means to verify something that is going to have an undetermined role in a larger system presents a serious challenge. It is perhaps evident that the most critical aspect of the operation of these information-processing ecosystems lies in their interaction: even perfectly specified and implemented individual systems may be used in contexts for which they were not intended, leading to unreliable, insecure communications between them.

We contend that interfaces supporting such interactions are therefore the critical mechanism for ensuring systems behave as intended. However, the verification/modelling techniques that have been so effective in ensuring reliability of low-level features of programs, protocols, and policies (and so the of the software that drives large systems) are, essentially, not applied to reasoning about such large-scale systems and their interfaces. We intend to explore this deficiency by researching the technical, organizational, and social challenges of specifying and verifying interfaces in system ecosystems. In so doing, we will drive the use of verification techniques and improve the reliability of large systems.

Complex systems ecosystems and their interfaces are some of the most intricate and critical information ecosystems in existence today, and are highly dynamic and constantly evolving. We aim to understand how the interfaces between the components constituting these ecosystems work, and to verify them against their intended use. This research will be undertaken through a collection of different themes covering systems topics where interface is crucially important, including critical code, communications and security protocols, distributed systems and networks, security policies, business ecosystems, and even extending to the physical architecture of buildings and networks. These themes are representative of the problem of specifying and reasoning about the correctness of interfaces at different levels of abstraction and criticality.

Interfaces of each degree of abstraction and criticality can be studied independently, but we believe that it will be possible to develop a quite general, uniform account of specifying and reasoning about them. It is unlikely that any one level of abstraction will suggest all of the answers: we expect that the work of the themes will evolve and interact in complex ways.

We will be using ideas from a range of disciplines, including logic, program verification, security, discrete mathematical modelling, economics, and management science.

We have a great set of industrial partners: Amazon AWS, BT, Facebook, GridPP, HP Labs, and Methods Group.

EPSRC’s page for the project, including a summary, partners, duration, and value, is at http://gow.epsrc.ac.uk/NGBOViewGrant.aspx?GrantRef=EP/R006865/1.