Eureka May Be Europe's Ticket To Software Sovereignty

Europeans may be known for their national rivalries. But when it comes to developing software, the Old World is looking pretty harmonious. In a little-known project called the Eureka Software Factory (ESF), 14 companies and institutes from five countries are nearly halfway through a 10-year effort to automate the black art of computer programming. The $400 million project aims to overcome the same hurdles faced by U. S. and Japanese companies: huge backlogs of unwritten corporate and government software, long development times for new programs, and a shortage of programming talent.

The project could give the Europeans a strong defense against encroaching Americans in their software and services market. Taking the programming "factory" concept from Japan, the consortium aims to create a pan-European approach to software automation. But while Japan has focused on rigid procedures meant to wring more bug-free code out of each programmer, ESF wants to boost productivity without stifling the creativity of hotshot software designers and programmers.

The core of the project is a special layer of software that would work on almost any type of computer. This common software now runs on Sun Microsystems Inc. workstations, with other versions coming. With it, programmers can use different software-writing "tools" without worrying whether such tools are incompatible with each other. This way, scores of programmers can work together on the same project.

In addition, "we're pushing very hard to maximize the reuse of code," says Hubert Tardieu, corporate technology director for Sema Group, an ESF member. That way, existing chunks of code, or computer commands, can be recycled and freely shared among workers. ESF also sets rules for patching together those chunks. The bottom-line goal is a 10% to 15% productivity gain every year programmers use these methods.

HIGH HOPES. Last year, ESF, headquartered in Berlin, demonstrated its first prototypes. By 1992, participants from Britain, France, Germany, Norway, and Sweden hope to have up and running three software systems, tailored to specific telecommunications, aerospace, and general business applications. If the project stays on schedule, consortium members say that by 1996 they will be selling computer-aided software engineering (CASE) programs and services tailored to the ESF model.

Such technology would be invaluable. The average corporation takes 33 months to design, write, and install a major new business program, says Sentry Market Research. Slashing that time span could give entire industries a big competitive boost. "The group that can do it the best will have a tremendous economic advantage by the year 2000," says Leon Osterweil, chairman of the information and computer science department at the University of California at Irvine.

The Eureka group also expects its technology to reduce another huge expense: software maintenance, the chore of keeping existing programs up-to-date and running smoothly. That's vital, for example, for Hermes, Europe's first manned space shuttle, due to take off in 1998. The to for maintain the tens of millions of lines of computer code for Hermes may reach 3,500 man-years. If ESF tools are ready in time--and work as advertised--that toil can be reduced by 30%, according to Bernard Hurt, information technology director at Matra, an ESF partner from France. "We hope to see a big benefit," he says.

ESF's biggest potential benefit for European businesses may be a standardized way to develop software across the Continent, an important development for a unified European market. The project's 250 programmers are working on a system that would let software writers in different nations work on cross-border projects without language and style variations getting in the way.

It's too soon to tell whether Eureka can succeed where similar efforts have stumbled. "Everyone wants to build the same flexible system" for managing large software projects, says Osterweil. "But no one knows how." Other efforts, such as the U. S. Defense Dept.'s 10-year-old STARS plan and Japan's Ministry of International Trade & Industry-sponsored Sigma project, have not lived up to expectations.

HURDLES. Even if its technology does what its backers say, ESF will face a marketing challenge. The group has to persuade companies outside the consortium to take up the flag. Its 14 members include some of Europe's biggest programming operations such as British Telecommunications PLC and France's CAP Gemini Sogeti. But they account for only 10% of the Continent's software professionals.

And there's one other group to win over: programmers themselves. Since they are often accustomed to freewheeling independence, no one yet knows how they'll take to the discipline that ESF requires. Under the system, workers must adhere to strict production schedules. What's more, special monitoring features will automatically compile productivity reports for management. "Our big concern now is the Big Brother aspect--how to keep people motivated and productive without too much pressure," says Maurice Schlumberger, scientific director of CAP Gemini's Innovation research unit. If a unified Europe can strike the right balance between Japanese-style discipline and American-style freedom, it could rank up there with the U. S. as a top software power.

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