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A paper that has stood the test of time

In April 2018, Julia Lawall and Gilles Muller (Whisper project team) won a prize at the EuroSys conference for a paper written… ten years ago. Let’s explain.

It’s good to be awarded a prize for a good scientific paper… but it’s as least as good, if not better, to be awarded a prize for a scientific paper that has left an enduring impression on its research community and in real life! This is the rationale followed for the last two years by the EuroSys conference with its Test of Time Award for papers submitted ten years ago. At this year’s conference, the 12thedition held in Porto from 23 to 26 April, papers presented in 2008 were therefore reviewed.

And in the end the EuroSys program committee chose a paper entitled “Documenting and Automating Collateral Evolutions in Linux Device Drivers” written by a quartet of French and Danish researchers including Gilles Muller and Julia Lawall. “To choose the winner of its Time Award, the program committee focused on two criteria,” explains Gilles Muller. “The first was the scientific contribution of the research: the number of citations, further work done by other researchers, etc. The second was the applicability of the research set out in the paper. And this is undoubtedly where we stood out!”

Coccinelle: a ladybug for finding bugs

“Our paper focused on a tool we had developed as part of a collaboration between the Ecole des Mines de Nantes and the University of Copenhagen,”Julia Lawall explains. “It was christened Coccinelleand was designed to enable Linux developers to write their own rules for finding bugs and evolutions in the C code using patterns similar to that C code. It made way for faster and more reliable automated changes”.  Coccinelle was highly innovative when the paper was written and has lost none of its impact ten years on.

“The Linux kernel now consists of fifteen million lines of C code… Trying to work on it manually is out of the question! Tools like the one we developed have become truly indispensable”, says Gilles Muller. Coccinelle is still in great shape, with 4500 patches to its name and a playing field that extends beyond the boundaries of the Linux universe.

From one conference to another

Having joined Inria in 2009 and 2011 (“thanks to the work done on Coccinelle”), Gilles Muller and Julia Lawall are continuing their collaboration within the Whisper team, the core activity of which is the development of methodologies, languages and tools to assist with operating system design. “And Coccinelle still plays a key role in our work.  In effect it’s a platform for our research,” says Gilles Muller, who in passing expresses gratitude for the contribution made by engineers at Inria Paris to maintaining the tool.  The two researchers are delighted to receive the Test of Time Award fromEuroSys, but have further cause for satisfaction: a new paper, this time on Coccinelle’s ten years in action, has just been accepted for publication at the next Usenix Annual Technical Conference to be held in Boston from 11 to 13 July this year.