UMass Amherst Professor Wins $1.4 Million NSF Grant to Research Linking of Computer Systems

AMHERST, Mass. - George Avrunin, professor of mathematics and statistics at the University of Massachusetts, has received a $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation for research on the effective linking of computer systems. The grant will fund a four-year project Avrunin is working on in conjunction with UMass computer science professors Lori Clarke and Leon Osterweil. The group’s research could eventually be used in the development of computer systems used in areas such as air traffic control, airline reservation systems, and the monitoring of hospital patients.

The enormous growth of the use of computers during the past decade has brought about a trend of linking computers together in a group so that they can communicate with each other in order to complete a certain task - for instance, determining the exact position of various aircraft in the sky, Avrunin says. These linked computers, which are called "concurrent systems," use a variety of software programs, and different parts of the system are active at different times, he explains.

"As everyone who’s ever worked with computers knows, it’s hard to tell what a computer program is going to do, because programs have bugs," Avrunin says. The problem becomes worse in a concurrent system, he adds, because a single computer’s result depends not just on the information keyed in, but also on when events occur as the computers "talk" to one another.

Several software tools can help predict how well - or poorly - a concurrent system will work, Avrunin says; however, these tools are in the prototype stage. Avrunin, Clarke, and Osterweil will test and experiment with these prototypes, mapping out each one’s strengths, weaknesses, and best uses. These tools would eventually be used in designing concurrent systems - such as air traffic control or patient monitoring systems - ensuring that the linked computers communicate smoothly. While research team members don’t expect to label one software tool a "winner," they do hope to determine which tools are best in certain situations, and which can be used together for a reliable result.

Avrunin joined the UMass faculty in 1976. He recently gave two talks in the Distinguished Lecture Series of the computing and information systems department at Kansas State University. Avrunin earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees at the University of Michigan.