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Microsoft Research Connections Blog

The Microsoft Research Connections blog shares stories of collaborations with computer scientists at academic and scientific institutions to advance technical innovations in computing, as well as related events, scholarships, and fellowships.

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    SEIF Project Crystal Receives ACM SIGSOFT Distinguished Paper Award

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    Each year, Microsoft Research awards competitive grants to computer science academics through the Software Engineering Innovation Foundation (SEIF). In the first grant round, conducted in 2010, Professor David Notkin and his colleagues at the University of Washington were the recipients of one of the 12 awards for their proposal, “Speculation and Continuous Validation for Software Development,” which resulted in the project, “Crystal: Precise and Unobtrusive Conflict Warnings.” I’m pleased to announce that the achievements of Notkin and his colleagues are being recognized this month with an ACM SIGSOFT Distinguished Paper Award. The award will be presented at the European Software Engineering Conference and the ACM SIGSOFT Symposium on the Foundations of Software Engineering (ESEC/FSE) in Szeged, Hungary (September 5–9, 2011). I’d like to share some of this exceptional research with you today.

    (From left to right) Reid Holmes, David Notkin, Judith Bishop, Michael Ernst, Yuriy Brun

    (From left to right) Reid Holmes, David Notkin, Judith Bishop, Michael Ernst, Yuriy Brun

    About the Crystal Project

    Collaborative development of large software projects can be hampered when conflicts arise because developers have created inconsistent copies of a shared file, Notkin explains. The Crystal approach is designed to help developers identify and resolve inconsistencies early, before those conflicts become severe—and before relevant changes fade from the developers’ memories. The Crystal paper presents three outcomes of the project:

    • By studying open-source systems, the project team determined that inconsistencies or conflicts between copies of a shared file are frequent, persistent, and appear not only as overlapping textual edits, but also as subsequent build and test failures.
    • They classified conflicts by using the novel technique of speculative analysis over version-control operations.
    • They designed Crystal, a publicly available tool that uses speculative analysis to present concrete advice unobtrusively to developers, thereby helping them identify, manage, and prevent file version conflicts.

    Notkin’s study spans nine open-source systems totaling 3.4 million lines of code. The conflict data is derived from 550,000 development versions of the system. The complete paper, which goes into great detail on all three points, plus other research that was conducted as part of the project, is available to read online.

    Continuing Excellence

    The SEIF grants are just one way through which we continue to strengthen our support for outstanding university software engineering programs. These grants are intended to stimulate research in all aspects of software engineering, with an aim to cultivate interest in Microsoft Research tools and technologies. They also strengthen our ties to the university community.

    In fact, one of the postgraduate students who worked on Notkin’s Crystal project, Kıvanç Muşlu, came to work for us as an intern. He was jointly mentored by Christian Bird and Tom Zimmermann of the Research in Software Engineering group (RiSE) and me. During his internship, Muşlu explored how Crystal’s principles could be expanded for use in a full industrial context. The testbed was the full Bing development history. The result of his work, a new tool called Beacon, will be deployed to Microsoft product groups in the near future. Like Crystal, Beacon can alert developers when code they are writing will conflict with changes to another branch of the code. By using Microsoft Lync, it can quickly put the developers of the two sections of code in touch so that they can resolve the conflict. The challenge was to make the system work in real time with the enormous number of files and developers involved in a system like Bing. We look forward to seeing more from Muşlu in the future.

    Judith Bishop, Director of Computer Science, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Latin American Workshop Explores Research Challenges and Collaboration Opportunities

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    Fifty Latin American researchers and former Microsoft Research interns and Fellows gathered at the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington, in July to participate in the LATAM Workshop. The goals of this research workshop: share research challenges and results and seek opportunities to work together across the Latin American region.

    Fifty Latin American researchers and former Microsoft Research interns and Fellows gathered at the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington, in July to participate in the LATAM Workshop.

    The event included presentations from representatives from the Microsoft Research-FAPESP Institute for IT Research in São Paulo, Brazil, and the Latin American and Caribbean Collaborative ICT Research (LACCIR) Federation. Representatives from Microsoft Research also participated in discussions and delivered presentations about advances in computing that can be applied to research challenges. The topics of this year’s event focused on how the computer sciences can be applied to micro-economies, health and wellbeing, climate change, bioenergy, biodiversity, and tropical ecosystems.

    “The Latin American Workshop played a significant role in sharing our research findings and perspectives with each other; not only with researchers from our region but also with colleagues from Microsoft Research,” said Domingo Mery, a professor from Catholic University of Chile and conference presenter. “This is an excellent way to nurture collaboration in Latin America and the Caribbean. Many thanks for this opportunity!”

    While all of the presentations were impressive, we have chosen two to highlight here today: “The Brazilian Biodiversity Database and Information System (SinBiota),” presented by Tiago Egger Moellwald Duque Estrada, Instituto Virtual da Biodiversidade, Programa Biota/FAPESP; and “Live Andes (Advanced Network for the Distribution of Endangered Species): A New Tool for Wildlife Conservation,” presented by Cristian Bonacic, associate professor, Ecosystems and Environment Department, Catholic University of Chile, Chile.

    Session Highlight: The Brazilian Biodiversity Database and Information System: SinBiota

    The BIOTA/FAPESP program (São Paulo’s State Foundation for Research Funding) was created 10 years ago to provide support for the São Paulo State Government to achieve the targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity. One of the essential components of the BIOTA/FAPESP program is the information system called SinBiota. This is a new version (currently prototype) of the first SinBiota system. It runs on Microsoft Silverlight, and uses Bing maps to provide environmental data visualization.

    The system has not been significantly upgraded in its first 10 years. With the renovation of the Biota/FAPESP program, a new system is needed to fulfill the demands of researchers, educators, NGOs, and governmental agencies.
    “The workshop was an invaluable opportunity for researchers from São Paulo and their students to interact with colleagues from LACCIR and scientists from Microsoft Research,” said Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, scientific director, FAPESP. “We expect that high-impact scientific collaboration will follow.”

    Session Highlight: Live ANDES (Advanced Network for the Distribution of Endangered Species): A New Tool for Wildlife Conservation
    South America is home to some of the richest and most diverse ecosystems in the world. However, many species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians in these ecosystems are in danger of extinction. Additionally, vast areas of land have been minimally explored by scientists to assess the population status of various species and to identify unknown species. Scientists and conservationists can greatly improve their understanding of endangered species through access to reports about the local wildlife from residents of these regions.

    ICT tools that citizens can use in natural areas could provide conservation scientists with vital information to help them protect wildlife. The Live ANDES platform, which is a citizen science project, is helping to create a global conservation community in South America. Citizens can upload and share wildlife data (such as notes, videos, and audio of endangered species) with scientists. This project enables local residents to contribute to biodiversity conservation by providing scientists with much-needed wildlife data.

    This platform is currently available in beta version and enables users to share information online. The platform was built on the Microsoft .NET Framework and the web solution uses technologies such as ASP.NET MVC, Bing Map Services, Windows Communication Foundation data services, Microsoft SQL Server 2008, the ADO.NET Entity Framework, and LINQ. The mobile solution is based on the .NET Compact Framework for Windows Phone 7.

    In a second version of Live ANDES, the project team will focus on data sharing among academics and policy makers, which requires more advanced tools for assessing quality data and for data analysis, as well as user profiles that provide more details.

    Graduate Student Participation

    The response to these and other sessions was overwhelmingly positive. A key factor contributing to the workshop’s success was the participation of 20 graduate students who have worked as interns or Fellows at Microsoft Research. Some were Microsoft Research alumni and others are currently working with Microsoft Research. All were actively involved in research and the workshop exchanges.

    This workshop was a wonderful opportunity for these students. Attending the workshop will help them with their research, and it will also help broaden their understanding of a wide range of technologies and approaches that will, in turn, support the advancement of their careers. The workshop also gave alumni a chance to reconnect and catch up with their Microsoft Research mentors.


    Juliana Salles, Senior Research Program Manager; Harold Javid, Director, Americas/ANZ Regional Programs; and Jaime Puente, Director, Latin America and Caribbean

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    Barcelona-Cambridge Collaboration Celebrates its First PhD Success

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    Collaboration can be a great catalyst for new ideas. Whether working with colleagues from down the hall or a team from another continent, we have found that working together strengthens our ideas. A prime example is the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre – Microsoft Research Centre in Barcelona, Spain. Microsoft Research Cambridge began collaborating with the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC) in 2006. We formalized the relationship with the establishment of the BSC – Microsoft Research Centre in January 2008. The Centre focuses on the design and interaction of future microprocessors and software for the mobile and desktop market segments.

    The BSC – Microsoft Research Centre is home to a talented group of students who are working towards their PhDs and who bring their creativity and enthusiasm to tackle tomorrow’s problems. “I am very happy that the Centre is a model of open research,” said Centre director Mateo Valero. “We share our findings with the community and all of our software and applications are available for download at our website.”

    The program has an extremely young team with more than 15 PhD candidates, Valero explained. Leading the student group was Ferad Zyulkyarov, who is at the forefront of Transactional Memory (TM) research. Working under the supervision of Valero, and his colleagues Osman Unsal and Adrián Cristal, Zyulkyarov investigated how this new approach to multi-core programming could make software development much easier for future computer architectures.

    Ferad Zyulkyarov defends his thesis in Barcelona

    Ferad Zyulkyarov defends his thesis in Barcelona

    A Different Point of View

    Previous TM research had focused on evaluating and improving TM implementations. Zyulkyarov took a unique approach to the problem, looking at it from the programmer’s point of view. As part of his thesis, Zyulkyarov developed one of the first real-world TM applications: a rewrite of the Quake Game Server that replaced traditional memory locks with TM atomic blocks. This makes life much easier for the programmer, potentially transforming multi-core software development for the future.

    Zyulkyarov encountered some obstacles during his project. For example, he had to develop a better debugger and profiling support, neither of which existed before he created them. When he reviewed the performance of the core server code, Zyulkyarov could see the potential for TM. There is still some optimization work to be done, but the potential is there.

    During the project, Zyulkyarov collaborated closely with Tim Harris, senior researcher, Systems and Networking Group, Microsoft Research Cambridge. Harris is proud of the work Zyulkyarov accomplished during their time together. “It’s great to see Ferad’s work come to fruition,” Harris said. “He’s made substantial contributions to the development of programming tools for using TM, and I hope that we’ll now be able to apply these ideas to other parts of the multi-core challenge.”

    The First of Many PhDs from Barcelona

    The first of the 15 students to receive his PhD, and now at Intel, Zyulkyarov is just one example of the young talent being fostered through the BSC – Microsoft Research Centre, driving the industry to tackle some of its most challenging problems. “In the five years since we have started, the Centre has matured quite a lot, and this is the first fruit of the collaboration with BSC and Microsoft Research,” Valero said, adding he is especially grateful to Harris for serving as Ferad’s mentor. “I know that more [success stories] will follow soon,” he added.

    I am very glad—thinking back to my first visit to BSC five years ago—in seeing how far we came. This is the result of all the energy and enthusiasm we have all put together in the enterprise. This is only the first of a successful series of PhD awards, which we will see taking place in the next few years.

    Fabrizio Gagliardi, Director, Microsoft Research Connections EMEA (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa)

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