Thursday, August 17, 2006

Are modeling languages useful for complex systems?

In the August edition of the Rational Edge, Laurance Balmelli gives an introduction to the basic purpose and value of Systems Modeling Language (SysML), a proposed extention to the Unified Model Language (UML). An interesting article where he uses a simple system (Rain Sensing Wiper in a car) to explain some basic concepts about requirements modeling with SysML.

Reading through it I noticed that although it is a simple system to regard, it still requires a decent model to describe it. I was wondering how this would be for complex, real-time systems like cars, airplanes, shpace shuttles or medical imaging equipment. Those systems are so extensive and so complicated, that the requirements model will probably at least as difficult to comprehend as the system that is being modeled. But the purpose of the model is to make the system's functionality (and non-functional aspects) easier to understand that just using your (expert) vision based on years of experience with developing those kind of things.

If modeling the monster is about as difficult as comprehending the system without the model, then why bother? In practice, you do often see that modelling is only used to get an initial vision of functionality and architecture because no one has enough experience to build an intuition. But after several years of developing release after release, the models start to get out-of-sync with the implementation and the documentation. I see it all the time that first models are neglected and the modelling tools are degraded to drawing tools.

Does this means that the modeling languages (like SysML) serve no purpose for those large and complex systems? I think they do partially. As long as these modeling languages (even when they are visual languages) are general and very abstract, engineers with a lot of experience and with a specific and concrete mental picture of the system will probably outperform the modeling language. But once those modeling language are more dedicated to the application area, either by design or by heuristics that allow the language to adapt to the application area, I think those languages may become a more practical tool for extreme complex systems. It's a matter of being able to trust the models to be more reliable than the mental pictures of the engineers.

Update 14/4/2007:
Added labels.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

Hey Frank,
just read your latest blog article, makes sense to me also, I'll give you a link here to an ex-colleague of mine (Mario) who wrote last month about the usefullness (or not !) of the so called CASE tools... kindof related to your reasoning, according to me:


Kevin B. Scott.