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June 12, 1990


By CBR Staff Writer

A company called Programming Research Ltd, which has been up and running since 1986, has now been launched formally to offer software quality assurance products. The extraordinary four-year gap between the company’s establishment and its promotion can probably best be explained by its founder’s background as academic turned Fortran programmer and geophysical researcher. For Les Hatton, the company’s founder, appears the sort of person that is happiest in a research and development atomsphere. However, Programming Research is not Hatton’s first foray into the commercial world, since he was also a co-founder of Merlin Profilers Ltd which was set up in 1979 and produced what it claimed to be the first portable seismic data processing package. But in 1985 Merlin was taken over by Schlumberger Measurement & Control Ltd and Les left to form Programming Research. Over the next two years he developed a computer-aided software engineering tool called Flint which can measure objectively the quality of Fortran code, checking its reliability and helping programmers to maintain programs written in the language. In 1989 Hatton took the tool to market where clients such as the European Space Agency, British Petroleum Exploration, the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the UK Atomic Energy Authority took it up. By the end of 1989 Hatton realised he needed new capital to market the product and approached Paul Blundell, an accountant by training, who had negotiated the sale of Merlin to Schlumberger and who had subsequently founded Spectrum Energy & Information Technology Ltd, a company which he grew from UKP500,000 to UKP5m over three years. Blundell is now managing director of Programming Research with Dennis Foreman, credited with creating Landmark Graphics UK Ltd, acting as marketing director. The trio will announce backing from a leading UK venture capitalist shortly. Once this is in the company’s bag it can focus on marketing software quality assurance tools. There is evidently a need for such tools: working with research provided by Price Waterhouse and Logica, the UK Department of Trade & Industry says that software errors cost companies UKP1m per working hour in the UK.

Issue of life or death

Yet the vast majority of computer-aided software engineering tools are aimed at the development of code, even though the cost of software ownership is far more expensive than its development. Programming Research reckons that in any line of code it is normal to find one residual error in every 300 lines. Furthermore, Fortran, the language in which the company specialises, is used to write safety-critical systems for, say, aircraft and drug trials, so that any errors could well be an issue of life or death. Consequently, a tool such as Flint is clearly important. The tool features error detection using static analysis techniques, a knowledgebase of reliability and portability issues which is supported by information from users such as NASA and ESA, the ability to ensure compliance with industry norms such as GKS, PHIGS, and NAG, the maintenance of good programming standards derived from public bodies and from companies such as IBM and AT&T, and the objective measurement of code quality via demographic quality analysis. This last feature enables those unfortunate souls that have to manage software developers to test programs against an historical database and give them a percentile ranking for quality. Flint is written in C and runs on Unix and VMS machines and will retail for around UKP6,000 for a Sun SparcStation, or around UKP21,000 for a 10-user Convex minisupercomputer. The tool is being sold directly by the the company which is headquartered in New Malden, Surrey. At the end of this year Programming Research says it will also have a Flint-like tool for the C language. It intends to remain within the safety-critical software market and has no aspirations in the direction of Cobol and business-critical software. – Katy Ring

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