Rambles around computer science

Diverting trains of thought, wasting precious time

Mon, 24 Nov 2014

I hate systems research... sort of

[I wrote this article on 6th August 2008, when I was a second-year PhD student, but then didn't have the guts to post it. Looking back, it's not so controversial, although it was obviously shaped by my (relatively narrow) experiences as a PhD student in a particular corner of the Networks and Operating Systems group here in Cambridge (a group I am very happy to be associated with, I should add).]

David Byrne, a well-known proponent of musics from around the world, once wrote an article entitled “I hate world music”. He hadn't experienced a sudden change in his taste, but was referring to the label of “world music”. By labelling all music that doesn't conform to a certain narrow set of Western-heritage styles as “world music”, it can be conveniently marginalised and dismissed as a unit.

So too with computer science research, labels are used to divide and marginalise. This time, it's the inside marginalising the outside. A recent EuroSys call for papers invited papers on “systems aspects of...” a long list of topics. Despite having been working in a systems research group for nearly three years, nobody has ever told me what “systems aspects” are. Yet most people who'd describe themselves as “systems researchers” seem to wear that badge with some degree of pride. Until someone can tell me what it means and why it's such a good thing, I won't be doing the same.

What defines systems researchers? Is it that they “build stuff”? This is perhaps necessary but hardly sufficient. Is it that they meddle with operating systems, networking stacks or other infrastructure software? Perhaps, but it seems to cover a lot more ground than that to which the label is commonly applied. My preferred take is that “systems” is simply a label, of historical origins, which now identifies a research community—a community which, like all social networks, is defined only by the links among its members and the continuity of that relation's evolution over time. One thing that has continued to surprise and frustrate me about the world of research is that despite huge overlaps of interest, it is divided much more than it is united: divided into largely separate, non-cooperating communities. Many systems researchers would be horrified (thanks to a snobbery I will come back to) if you claimed that their work overlapped with that of the software engineering community. Yet having attended in the last year both EuroSys and ESEC/FSE, I estimate that at least 40% of the papers I saw at each of those conferences could easily have been presented at the other without any sense of incongruity whatsoever.

Last week at the Semantics Lunch, Mike Hicks gave an excellent talk about CMod, the module system for C developed at the University of Maryland. Unlike other Semantics Lunches, the advertisement was cc'd to my research group's list. I get the e-mails anyway because I'm subscribed to other lists, but the obvious inference is the impression that systems researchers will be interested in any languages research that concerns C, but not in any other. This impression is certainly not fair, but the exaggerated impression does indeed stem from a grain of truth.

One way of getting your tools- or languages-oriented paper published in the systems community is to show how it applies to “systems code”. This almost always means one of three things: performance-critical code, resource-constrained code, or code written in C. These are all pretty general requirements, and fully relevant to the widest imaginable “software engineering” community. Regarding the last of the three requirements, of course there are many great reasons for creating tools that work with C, given the astronomically huge volume of existing software that is written in it. Working with C is certainly a priority for my own work. However, everyone knows that C is a language with many gigantic problems, and ones that have been known for decades. Cynically, I would claim that part of the reason that C-language developments, both code and tools, continue to flourish within the “systems community” is an endemic disdain for programming language advances, or in general of any research community that isn't “systems”.

This separatism comes in more than one form. There is a certain air of what I call “macho bullshit”, where, among other things, there is pride is associated with writing unnecessarily nasty code in unnecessarily low-level languages. Now, I have seen some exceptionally clean and well-engineered C programs, particularly ones coming out of my own research group, so this isn't any sort of blanket statement. I've also seen, again locally, many systems researchers who are heavily into language advances. But the other side of the coin is there too: the disdain and the separatism are definitely things I've observed around here, and I don't like them. They're joined by an attitude to criticism: there appears to be an unwelcome degree of sniping and dismissiveness, found in reviews and programme committees, together with a bizarre culture of unnecessary controversy, as typically found in workshops with “Hot” in their title. It seems there are too many systems researchers prepared to forward any criticism of others' work, however invalid, and pronounce any self-aggrandising position, however obtuse and misleadingly argued. This is, in a word, unprofessional, and it undermines the very goals of research. I don't have enough experience to know either how widespread these attitudes are, or how much more systems research suffers from them relative to other fields.

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