By John Keller
WASHINGTON - A decade-long fight over software languages that has raged between military and aerospace electronics designers and policy makers in the Pentagon may be coming to an end.
The Defense Department`s chief of computers, Emmett Paige Jr., is recommending a rescission of the DOD`s mandate to use the Ada programming language for real-time, mission-critical weapons and information systems.
It is not clear who in the Pentagon would need to approve Paige`s recommendation for the policy rescission to be successfully carried out, but DOD spokeswoman Susan Hansen says the policy change will probably come soon.
Some in the defense electronics industry are already applauding Paige`s move. "It`s about time," says Duncan Young, director of marketing for DY 4 Systems Inc. of Kanata, Ontario, a supplier of rugged VME single-board computers for armored vehicles, aircraft, and other military systems.
Jerry Rudisin, vice president of marketing for Rational Software Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., says the upcoming policy shift could benefit Ada by reducing some of the hostility that many software engineers feel for the language because of its mandated nature.
Based on NRC report
Paige, the DOD`s assistant secretary for command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence, is recommending that DOD leaders adopt suggestions set forth by a committee of the National Research Council in a November report.
The report, entitled "Ada and Beyond: Software Policies for the Department of Defense," recommends that DOD spend $15 million each year to keep Ada current for its primary task - $11.5 million for support contracts and $3.5 million for in-house support. The report also recommends that military project leaders prepare a software-engineering evaluation to justify the choices of programming languages.
Paige says he believes industry engineers will be more likely to accept the benefits of using Ada if DOD leaders recommend, not require, the language. Software engineers, who would rather choose a language based on its merits rather than because of a governmental mandate, historically have resisted the Ada mandate on principle.
"His [Paige`s] belief is the mandate requiring the use of Ada should be dropped," Hansen confirms. "We will support Ada as the preferred language for weapons and for command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. He says this will take the contentious points of resentment out of the DOD software process, that we will get the desired result without a mandate."
Paige has announced his retirement from DOD as soon as Pentagon leaders can find a suitable replacement.
Chief complaints about Ada since it first became a military-wide standard in 1983 centered on the perception among industry software engineers that DOD officials were "shoving Ada down our throats."
Ada, which over its lifetime has had backing from the U.S. military, the American National Standards Institute, and the International Standards Organization, was designed to enforce methodical software engineering practices, ease the periodic update of program code, and reduce the number of programming languages used for military systems.
Ada, particularly with its new Ada 95 extensions and object-oriented approach, is often judged to be superior to C and C++, its two chief rivals for the software engineer`s affection, for its reliability, maintainability, and ability to handle real-time tasks.
While DOD Ada enforcement has always been lackluster and spotty, many in industry interpreted the policy from former Defense Secretary William Perry to use commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment whenever possible as wholesale license to scrap Ada programs.
It is not clear yet if industry leaders will alter their Ada programs, but indications are already emerging that some microprocessor manufacturers may not even spend the money necessary to secure Ada software support for new generations of devices.
Ada proponents and antagonists alike, however, say the time may be right to eliminate the Ada mandate, which many claim never received enthusiastic enforcement from DOD. Systems designers always had a relatively easy time either securing waivers from the mandate, or simply using another language without seeking approval to do so.
Business as usual?
"Removing the mandate is a nonsequitur. We haven`t had an enforced mandate, so removing something that has not been enforced is a zero proposal," says longtime Ada champion Ralph Crafts, vice president of sales and marketing at Ada vendor OC Systems Inc. in Fairfax, Va.
"The mandate has always had a very large `out,` if you will, to let you use something other than Ada, based on good software engineering considerations," Crafts continues. "This new approach, if implemented, is a restatement of what the old policy really was, that Ada was the default choice unless there was evidence that something else was better.
"Now you still have to go through a software-engineering evaluation and choose the language that best meets the engineering of DOD software systems," Crafts says. "So Ada should be the language, since it was designed for good software engineering. Nothing really is going to change."
Still, Crafts and other Ada proponents say Paige`s decision to drop the Ada mandate is a mistake, and could come back to haunt DOD officials in the future.
"It is a mistake not to have a strong DOD language policy," Crafts says. "The fact of the matter is there is no other language better suited for accomplishing the defense mission than Ada. The whole reason for Ada was to eliminate the need to support hundreds of different languages and dialects. As we do away with a single language policy, if we don`t have something strong, we are reverting back to the software anarchy of the `70s, and we are starting down that path now."