The Pentagon is Trying to Enable Software to Upgrade Itself

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The research could one day help the government address its legacy IT problem.

The Defense Department is working to build technology that enables software to automatically reconfigure itself to keep up with changing IT systems and computing requirements.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency last week announced it would start investing in technologies that build more flexibility into the software development process and make it significantly easier to upgrade IT systems once their original specs become outdated. 

Ultimately, the tools developed under the Intent-Defined Adaptive Software program could help the Pentagon and broader government reduce their reliance on expensive and unwieldy legacy tech.

The program hinges on the idea that every decision a developer makes when designing software could limit that application’s ability to adapt to the future. Coding decisions are made based on current requirements, technologies and IT environments, but they don’t account for how the application’s ecosystem might change years down the line, DARPA officials wrote in the broad agency announcement.

As a result, they said, the tech “is brittle with respect to changes in requirements and/or computing resources, requiring frequent and ultimately unaffordable modernization efforts to maintain adequate functionality.” But by understanding developers’ “intentions” when designing software, agencies could reconfigure the tech to operate more effectively in new computing environments without much manual labor.

The tech developed under the program would supplement any given application throughout its entire life cycle, starting with logging developers’ “intent” for every decision they make. Years down the line, users could modify the system’s “intentions” and “constraints,” and the tools would use that information to automatically rewrite the software.

The technology would “capture the intentions of software engineers to enable rapid code generation to support the continual adaptation of [Defense Department] software-enabled systems,” officials said.

The program is divided into four technical tracks focused on developing the software generation tools and integrating them into the software development process. The first two phases of the program, scheduled to run 18 months each, will entail research, development and testing, and in the final phase teams will scale the tech across the department.

Teams wishing to participate in the program must apply by Sept. 10.

Through the program, DARPA intends to create a more sustainable life cycle for government technology, ultimately helping agencies get more bang for their software acquisition buck. In the solicitation, officials pointed out that the government’s overreliance on legacy IT not only eats up a significant chunk of its tech budget but also limits its ability to adapt with the times.

“As large software projects mature, they often become locked to specific versions of the resources on which they depend,” they said. “Upgrading systems to take advantage of modern computational resource features often requires many of hours of effort to either completely reengineer the software, or meticulously change and test interfaces across dozens or hundreds of dependencies.”

By building more flexibility into the software life cycle, they said, “software sustainment effort should be drastically reduced, freeing engineers to focus on the design of the software and adding new functionality.”