Lionel Montrieux Access accidentally permitted

New Job, New Blog

New job

In late September, my wife and I packed our stuff in four suitases, drove our cat to a friend's in Belgium, and flew to Japan. My contract at The Open University was coming to an end, and I had been offered a postdoc position at the National Institute of Informatics (NII), in the Programming Languages Laboratory, led by Prof. Zhenjiang Hu.

I did not suddenly turn into a programming languages expert. In fact, my work at NII consists of /using/ bidirectional transformation languages to implement access control (authorisation, in particular). I have already quickly introduced one of the bidirectional transformation languages, BiFlux, in the previous post. Another language developed here at NII is GRoundTram. GRoundTram uses a completely different approach than BiFlux, when it comes to bidirectional transformations. More details on bidirectional programming will be the subject of another post.

New blog

To mark the occasion, and for a handful of other reasons that would be uninteresting to expose here, I also decided to completely change this blog. I opted for a Jekyll-based blog, hosted on Amazon Web Services. Hopefully, migrating from a Wordpress blog to a static blog will result in less maintenance work for me.

The layout is much simpler and lighter than the previous version. I started with Poole, a basic installation of Jekyll, and the Lanyon theme. I am still playing around with the theme to adapt it to my needs, so you may expect it to change a bit in the coming weeks.

My initial plan was to retire the old blog, and to release this one, on my first day at NII. I am late.

Migrating the archive has not been as easy as I was hoping for, which in part explains why it took me so long to complete. Jekyll has a pretty good import script for Wordpress, but each post still needed some additional tweaking in order to make sure that everything looked good, and that the links were not broken.

If you, reader, find any broken links, or other out-of-place elements, please let me know in the comments, and I will fix issues as quickly as I can.

BiFlux-mode: an Emacs major mode for BiFlux

I have recently been playing around with BiFlux, a language to express bidirectional transformations of XML documents developed at NII, Japan. The language is great, because it is a much simpler alternative to GRoundTram, also from NII. But what are bidirectional transformations, I hear you ask?

Well, conveniently, there is a Wikipedia page on the subject on bidirectional transformations. Granted, it isn't the most detailed page on Wikipedia, but contributions are, I suppose, more than welcome. And it still gives a pretty good idea of what a bidirectional transformation is. In particular, the following paragraph about lens languages is key to understanding what BiFlux does:

More general is a lens language, in which there is a distinguished forward direction ("get") that takes a concrete input to an abstract output, discarding some information in the process: the concrete state includes all the information that is in the abstract state, and usually some more. The backward direction ("put") takes a concrete state and an abstract state and computes a new concrete state. Lenses are required to obey certain conditions to ensure sensible behaviour.

[Wikipedia]


So, in short, BiFlux allows you to write "put" in a language that looks a lot like SQL, and to have "get" generated for free. This means that, under certain circumstances, one can easily generate a bidirectional transformation between two XML DTDs.

It happens that my favourite text editor is Emacs (what else, really?). As there was no support for BiFlux in Emacs, I decided to create a major mode for it, to help myself and others when writing code for BiFlux. I like Emacs a lot, but I have never written a major mode - or anything really - in Emacs Lisp before. I am a complete Emacs Lisp rookie, and I'm learning as I go.

Currently, the mode supports some level of syntax highlighting, which already makes my life easier, and that's about it. In the near future, I'd like to complete the syntax highlighting, and to add commands for compiling the bidirectional transformations.

The code for biflux-mode is available on github, under the Apache 2 license. Any help is more than welcome, as I am nowhere near an Emacs Lisp expert. I will probably post more about biflux-mode as it gets new features.

New SSL certificate

For a while now, I have been using an SSL certificate signed by CAcert.org for this blog. CAcert.org is a community-owned certificate authority, that can issue free certificates to the public. However, its root certificate is not included in the most common browsers, which makes CAcert.org -signed certificate significantly less useful. Furthermore, my certificate had long expired, but I had been too busy (or too lazy?) to take the time to renew it...

Until now. I took the opportunity to switch to a certificate authority whose root certificate is bundled with major browsers, so hopefully, readers will not see any scary warnings anymore when reading this blog over https. And since that issue was solved, I have also switched the entire website to https for everyone. If you encounter issues, please do let me know!

One day, I might even update the photos in the header, and replace them by some that I took myself. But that's something else entirely.

Google Announces Project Zero

From Google's online security blog:

Security is a top priority for Google. [...] We're hiring the best practically-minded security researchers and contributing 100% of their time toward improving security across the Internet.

[...]

Every bug we discover will be filed in an external database. We will only report bugs to the software's vendor—and no third parties. Once the bug report becomes public (typically once a patch is available), you'll be able to monitor vendor time-to-fix performance, see any discussion about exploitability, and view historical exploits and crash traces. We also commit to sending bug reports to vendors in as close to real-time as possible, and to working with them to get fixes to users in a reasonable time.


This is good news. However, what will be Project Zero's policy in case a vendor decides to simply ignore bug reports, and refuses to patch their software? Will the vulnerability be published after a certain amount of time has lapsed?

Anyway, as the database of (presumably fixed) bugs grows, it will undoubtedly offer opportunities for security researchers to better understand and improve methods and processes for dealing with vulnerabilities.

Back from Code Generation 2014

Last Friday evening, I came home after three days in sunny Cambridge, where I had the pleasure to give a talk at Code Generation 2014. This is a very quick summary of my impressions.

Code Generation is a three-days, industry-focused conference about all things related to Model-Driven Engineering (MDE). I attended Code Generation for the first time two (or was it three?) years ago, and last week's edition was my second visit. I enjoyed it much more than the first edition I attended, but this may have to do with the fact that, this time, I was staying in Cambridge instead of commuting, and therefore got to attend the social events - a very important part of any conference.

I went to Code Generation with the objective of finding out what the software industry is working on in relation with MDE, and to find out what the current hot topics, as well as the current issues, are. It was quite interesting to compare my findings to the previous edition I attended. This year, I had the impression that DSLs were less of a hot topic than they were a couple of years ago. Although they still are a key part of the discussions, they aren't discussed so comprehensively anymore - perhaps because progress in that area means that they are better understood and very much taken for granted, but perhaps also because of the (very much noticed) absence of Xtext developers.

Punting on the river Cam Punting on the river Cam

Some new topics have emerged: the cloud, and the concept of "citizen developers". MDE and the cloud has been extensively discussed, in keynotes as well as in regular sessions, and from a variety of perspectives: online DSL editors, code generation as a service, etc. Citizen developers, on the other hand, is a term that came out quite a lot. I never heard of it before, so it came as a bit of a surprise for me. Gartner defines it as follows:

citizen developer is a user who creates new business applications for consumption by others using development and runtime environments sanctioned by corporate IT.


Much of the discussions, both during the talks and around coffee, food and beer, focused on how to design DSLs and, more generally, environments that allow citizen developers to write software within a somewhat constrained environment - some of the discussions were also mentioning cloud computing. But there were also discussions about whether it is indeed a good thing or not. Arguments in favour of citizen developers mainly cite the shortage of "qualified" software engineers, and the (actual or perceived) slow reaction time of IT departments. Those in favour argue that allowing citizen developers to write their own applications speeds up development time and reduces the workload of the IT department, which can presumably redirect its resources to critical systems - and the infrastructures to support the citizen developers' environment. On the other hand, those opposed to citizen developers put forward their lack of training, resulting in suboptimal, poorly tested and potentially harmful software. They also worry about the difficulty to centralise or communicate knowledge, as well as the maintenance nightmare that may result from a variety of applications with uncontrolled dependencies. Historically, "citizen developers" would be developing macros in MS Excel or small applications in MS Access. Nowadays, cloud platforms propose to replace those tools, allowing users to create and share their own apps, but hopefully with more control over dependencies, versioning and security from an IT department.

CG2014 dinner in a Japanese restaurant CG2014 dinner in a Japanese restaurant

Most of the talks I attended were very interesting. Setting aside the one or two sessions that, in my opinion, felt a bit too much like sales pitches, the rest was of very high quality. Some of them were filmed, and hopefully the videos will be available in the near future. My own talk was about rbacDSL, how it works, and what sort of research we have done and carry on doing using it. I posted my slides online for everyone to see, and I still welcome questions, comments, suggestions and other enquiries.

The conference closed on a panel session lead by Andrew Watson from OMG, asking the four panelists the following question (from memory): "Model-Driven Engineering: for the masses, or for the elite?". Discussions were of course connected to the citizen developers' issue, but another point of discussion was how to convince software engineers that MDE, when done correctly, is a good thing. Agile was mentioned, sometimes to point out that, contrary to popular belief, it isn't necessarily incompatible with MDE, just like using MDE does not necessarily mean following the waterfall development model. I may eventually write a more detailed summary of the panel discussion, which in my opinion was one of the highlights of the conference.

Between two talks Between two talks

Last but not least, I should add that perhaps the most important part of the conference happened over lunch, dinner and coffee breaks. Discussing with people from various places, backgrounds and interests is incredibly motivating, and hopefully gave me a better understanding of the current issues and challenges of MDE in practice.