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Ask Slashdot: Successful Software From Academia?

timothy posted more than 3 years ago | from the how-about-ncsa-mosaic dept.

Education 314

An anonymous reader writes "A lot of masters and PhD theses are about development of software targeting the solution or the automation of a specific problem. Bioinformatics, for example, has a lot of journals about software tools that are coded in academic environments; some of this software is the final result of a four-year PhD. But my question is, how much of this software will see the light outside the universities? I know of some examples, like BSD, but they are an exception, right? Is there any list of successful software created entirely inside universities' labs that became widely used?"

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latex ? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527122)

Though widely used is relative :)

Re:latex ? (1)

Shikaku (1129753) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527140)


Re:latex ? (1)

somersault (912633) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527550)

Backrub (Google)

Re:latex ? (2)

tautog (46259) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527680)



Someone tell me their thesis was rejected...

apache's mod_backhand (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527144)

I believe this was written by a grad student at Johns Hopkins, probably as part of his thesis work.
I took a class by his advisor, Prof.Yair Amir.

Re:apache's mod_backhand (1)

PPH (736903) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527606)

Apache got its start when NCSA (U of Illinois) decided to turn support of their httpd server over to an outside group.

Rumor has it that, upon looking at NCSA's code, they remarked, "This certainly is a patchy web server" (true?).

At my university... (2)

AdamJS (2466928) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527148)

Grad projects and student-assisted research projects (most recently some OCR work and some prime factoring studies) are always released at the end of each study term under some sort of open-source license. I'm not sure _where_, though. I know my friend used the project he contributed to in his own business software, but don't have any examples beyond such simple anecdotes.

Linux (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527150)

Does Linux count?

Re:Linux (1)

hedwards (940851) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527330)

If it doesn't *BSD definitely does.

Re:Linux (1)

ByOhTek (1181381) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527424)

Linux itself wasn't used for a thesis or for grade was it?

Parts of the kernel might have started that way, but as a whole, wasn't it just a project for self-education, fun, and production of a more useful too than what was otherwise available?

Re:Linux (1)

Kristian T. (3958) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527562)

It started out that way - but by the time Linus graduated in 1997, linux had become a huge thing, and I bet that if he hadn't made it the topic of his masters - he wouldn't have finished at all.

Re:Linux (4, Interesting)

Kristian T. (3958) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527452)

The title of Linus' thesis is: "Linux: a Portable Operating System" - so yes, it counts.

  The real question is, if it is enough that a project can trace it's roots back to a academia - even if >90% was added later and or by developers outside academia. I bet many products considered purely commercial started out started out in the back of the head of students during their studies. Many of those dropped out to build a company rather than stay and write a thesis about it. If you include those, and even consider some studying other majors than CS - your probably looking at the bulk of all software in existence.

Defining success as outside of the university...? (2)

ByOhTek (1181381) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527158)

That seems silly. When I worked in a bioinformatics group as an undergrad, we use a *LOT* of software that was only used inside of a university, partially because the kind of research it targeted wasn't necessarily popular in commercial areas yet, and some because what we used was OSS and many commercial organizations preferred closed sourced alternatives (sometimes for speed optimizations, sometimes for support reasons).

Maybe you should define your criteria as widespread use in the context of the target field, rather than outside of a university?

That being said, I think a lot of it either directly or indirectly (through a third party reimplementation), does make it out.

How about... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527172)

How about the Linux kernel?

Re:How about... (3, Informative)

Ruie (30480) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527254)

And valgrind

Re:How about... (3, Informative)

staalmannen (1705340) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527304)

and LLVM

Re:How about... (2)

pnewhook (788591) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527464)

And QNX []

PostgreSQL? (3, Informative)

0racle (667029) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527178)

That work for you?

PostgreSQL []

Re:PostgreSQL? (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527280)

And Berkeley DB []

Re:PostgreSQL? (1)

Svartalf (2997) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527434)

Beat me to the punch there...

Re:PostgreSQL? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527546)

Funny, on Google's birthday.

kerberos (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527184)

kerberos, ganglia, folding?

"Widely used" isn't the norm (3, Insightful)

93 Escort Wagon (326346) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527186)

In this day and age, most good software developed in acadamia tends to get spun into a business venture that makes its academic developers very, very rich. See Google, for example.

Re:"Widely used" isn't the norm (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527494)

In this day and age, most good software developed in acadamia tends to get spun into a business venture that makes its academic developers very, very rich. See Google, for example.

There is a slight difference between software developed in academia and software developed by persons in academia on their spare time.
The academic system by itself does not allow for much software development that is driectly benificial to society as whole.
What it provides is an environment where people can obtain the tools and time they need for the really nice programs as long as it is done informally and outside the academic system.

Possible example: (2)

BlaKnail (545030) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527188)

There was this company called Google that came out of some phD students' work. I think it's still around and doing business.

Well, (1)

gcnaddict (841664) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527198)

Successful software created entirely inside universities' labs... I wouldn't know about that, but Facebook and Google are products of students at universities at the time said applications came into existence. Both addressed specific problems (Google -> search, Facebook -> social contact/updates/etc.).

Re:Well, (0)

characterZer0 (138196) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527338)

Both addressed specific problems (Google -> search, Facebook -> social contact/updates/etc.).

Google -> how to deliver more targeted advertising.
Facebook -> how to deliver more targeted advertising.

FTFY. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527200)

google search

How about.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527206)

The google search engine, I hear that is pretty popular nowadays.

Logical Reason for the Dearth (5, Insightful)

eldavojohn (898314) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527214)

The problem with software in academia is that it is often devoted to a sole purpose. It is not a generalized solution -- conversely -- it's often a demonstration of a solution so specific that it's never been done. Hence the awarding of a title to the creator. On top of that the teams are usually small and time is usually tight. It's also usually a side effect of the greater thing, the thesis. It will always take a backseat to the theory.

When software is widely adopted, it is because it has been widely supported and is a more generalized solution to a problem. If it uses hardware, it supports all kinds. If it reads or writes files, it covers all formats. This leads to widespread adoption but also takes a lot of time and a lot of contributions. If you're also working on your thesis, this is a daunting task to work on the side.

Nobody gets their PhD by making a predecessor's implementation support more file formats or hardware. So this is left to the licensing of the originator and the community -- who are often recognized as the real workhorses that go from prototype to actual usable software. That's why you don't find many PhD projects turned instant open source hit.

In bioinformatics , a relatively young field, most consumers of the software work in a lab and the input is fairly simple. But even with simple input they first had to agree [] on a format [] (those are just a few of what used to be many). BLAST [] and FASTA [] go back to the 1990s and 1980s respectively ... if it had depended on hardware or the constant change of text files like PDF and DOC, I think you can understand how hard it would be for academia -- let alone the originating researcher(s) -- to maintain and support for the community. An open source effort could pick up that slack but then who deserves credit for that work?

Re:Logical Reason for the Dearth (3, Insightful)

RecoveredMarketroid (569802) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527396)

The problem with software in academia is that it is often devoted to a sole purpose. It is not a generalized solution -- conversely -- it's often a demonstration of a solution so specific that it's never been done.

Absolutely true. And much of the software is nearly unusable by anyone else-- it was built by the researchers to validate their own work, not to be used by others. If you've ever tried to use any code generated by grad students, it is often buggy, brittle, inflexible, indecipherable, etc... (I'm a late-stage PhD student, so I've run into this MANY times...) And that's the code that the researchers saw fit to release to the public-- imagine what the stuff that wasn't released looks like.

Re:Logical Reason for the Dearth (1)

boristhespider (1678416) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527516)

I used some stuff in my thesis that was written in Fortran 66, adapted from Fortran IV of all places. It took years more to clean out the rest of that and get everything at least into F950/95. It's still buggy, brittle, inflexible and probably indecipherable, but it's slowly getting better and more adaptable.

Re:Logical Reason for the Dearth (2)

boristhespider (1678416) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527630)

Actually I probably should have mentioned that I think it's a further reason for the problems - the code is often patched together from inherited libraries and routines passed on by the PhD supervisor, who themselves inherited quite a lot of it from their own supervisor. Some code used in large academic projects honestly dates back to about 1970 or before, and hasn't been touched since other than to hack into double precision and hope that that doesn't break something subtle. Since some of these archaic routines are random number generators, it actually can break things quite badly.

There's no way I'd release my codes to the wild even if anyone else found them useful - their brittleness is a mixture of the way they were programmed, aiming directly at a very specific problem with no error trapping if the inputs went slightly outside an assumed region, and the routines that went into them. It would take significant work to clear out all the junk and reprogram it in an even vaguely modern language.

Even then, that language would be Fortran, which would put off quite a lot of developers. In my field, at least, academia is still stuck in Fortran and it's often F77. People are slowly shifting to a mixture of C++ and Python but it's taking a very long time.

Re:Logical Reason for the Dearth (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527510)

This comment is right on. Academic software usually has a focused goal, software is usually successful by addressing a larger, generalized problem.

From our own experience, we took a piece of software from an academic thesis and tried to create a commercial software package. The target was too small and focused. Which leads to another point, it all depends on your target market. Do your market research to determine if the software actually has anyone that will be willing to pay for it. That isn't always true when it comes to academic software. The successful applications people are referencing here (Google, web browsers, BSD) all handle a large problem that affects many.

Google, RSA Encryption (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527220)

both ended up commercial, but both were academic projects. I think as a general principle, academia does not have the capacity to maintain commercial products - academic institutions don't have sales, customer support, marketing etc. So...genesis in academia, but significant "light of day outside of academia" is almost always going to involve a commercial entity.

Re:Google, RSA Encryption (1)

Sir_Sri (199544) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527308)

Universities also can't fund large scale testing, and, generally, the university doesn't own the work, the author does (professor or grad student), as soon as something can make money you leave the university, or at least farm it out to a separate corporation.

MSc's and PhD's aren't really about writing a big full blown program though. They're about finding novel solutions to problems and demonstrating that with a program. So they're different goals. You may have a big enough team that you produce a full on program, but more often that not, even if you're working directly on a commercial product, your part of it is relatively small.

Tons (1)

aaaaaaargh! (1150173) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527222)

I don't know of any list but I'm pretty sure that tons of successful software has come from academia.

Racket [] is a particularly nice example. I'm too lazy to Google so perhaps others can provide a few hundred more.

MIT AI Lab (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527224)

LISP, XWindows, Emacs - all from MIT.

X Windows, Ingress / Postgress (2)

angel'o'sphere (80593) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527228)

Subject says it, X was mainly developed at MIT. I guess Ingress and Postgress where originally also university projects.

A small academic project called "Backrub" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527232)

You mean something like [] ?

Paint.Net (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527234)

This is an awesome (and free) software program that started at Washington State University and is widely used today!

A few... (5, Informative)

sl3xd (111641) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527248)

* Kerberos (Widely used, part of Active Directory)
* X11
* AFS (Andrew File System)
* MACH (Used by GNU HURD and OS X)

And that's just a starting sample.

Re:A few... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527292)


Re:A few... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527660)


(The goddamn /. "filter" told me I was using too many caps. Sorry dudes, for using some goddamn A.C.R.O.N.Y.M.S.)

postgres RDBMS (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527250)

Postgres (now Postgresql) was started at UC Berkeley. There was a long evolution, but it is an outstanding and widely-used relational database.

nobody to blame? (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527260)

The problem is that a lot of useful academic code disappears when the degree is awarded to the candidate. It's a big problem that's only exacerbated by the publish-or-perish culture of the scientific community at large--this code is often written as an afterthought to acquiring a degree and the development practices exercised by the authors often reflect that.

I think a major contributing factor is that the academic culture breeds advisors who are less interested in sound software development and more interested in graduating their students/getting papers published. It's difficult to place much blame on anyone in particular, since this behavior appears congruent with our expectations. It's really too bad that society loses out on interesting software this way.

Spice, Magic, TCL, (Al)Pine etc. (1)

rudolfel (700883) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527272)

These all came from academia []

Re:Spice, Magic, TCL, (Al)Pine etc. (1)

Smallpond (221300) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527644)

Hspice and Pspice are popular commercial, closed source versions of Spice. I wonder if Spice would be used more or less if it had been GPL? It certainly resulted in a lot of money that did not go to the original developers.

Web Browsers? TCP/IP? (1)

cwgmpls (853876) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527276)

web browsers []
I'm pretty sure these are used outside of universities.

Several (3, Informative)

PiMuNu (865592) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527278)

I think most of the finite element/multiphysics packages started as research projects, either in university or government labs (some military, some conventional). For studying e.g. electromagnet design, heat deposition by currents /EM radiation e.g. microwave studio. Most of the radioactivation and nuclear shielding simulations used by the nuclear industry for designing radiation shielding are or were academic projects (e.g. MARS, FLUKA, MCNPX).

Windows? (1, Funny)

fartrader (323244) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527286)

Oh wait that was Pre-K

Yes (1)

Hatta (162192) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527298)

There are quite a few open source projects on [] . Some of these are little more than quick command line tools. Others are entire frameworks. Personally, I use the following tools on a regular basis. Bioconductor (with R), EMBOSS, Primer3, and ImageJ.

TeX (3, Insightful)

WillAdams (45638) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527306)

Subject of several theses: [] [] []

(John Hobby's on METAPOST [] )

Probably others. More information at []

and []

and []


Wrong approach? (1)

Superken7 (893292) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527316)

I think this is the wrong question to ask/wrong approach to take. Providing a final, production-ready product is not usually the goal of scientific research (my area). Especially when it's not done in collaboration with some engineering firm.

Usually the goal of scientific research is to provide new knowledge about some very specific domain. For example, some of my coworkers are developing a "cloud simulator" which models EC2 and allows you - among other things - to do stuff like predicting how many machines you will need and what the cost will be.

My point is that research does not have a goal to deliver production-ready software. That should not be the goal of a PhD thesis. The scientific method is about something different: Science, that is. :)
I'd say it is an engineer's task to take those new advances in Science to produce something which is "working" for them.

So to provide my final answer in a nutshell: I would say yes, that is the exception. Science is about providing advances in knowledge that others can then use for producing better.. "stuff".

Advanced Aircraft Analysis (3, Interesting)

CompMD (522020) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527320)

It started out as someone's graduate research project in the late 80s/early 90s, and today it is the #1 aircraft design software tool in the world. Its installed in universities, aircraft manufacturers, aerospace consulting firms, and government and military institutions across the planet.

Disclaimer: I worked on the software after it went commercial.

honestly... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527324)

this is a stupid question. Sorry.

Sometimes.. (1)

Dop (123) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527332)

Being formerly from a research institution I can say it happens... sometimes. Usually the people in charge of the project realize they can make money at it and spin off a company.

Other times, really excellent software, that would be great for the community, goes absolutely nowhere because there isn't an easy path to profit. Once the grant money ends, the project dies. Then other groups write more proposals to solve the same problem over and over because there's nothing in the market.

Few off the top of my head (2)

jfp51 (64421) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527344)

Rocks clusters ( CHARMM ( Gaussian as an example of how academic-inspired software should NOT be commercialised (

Silly question (1)

abigor (540274) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527346)

Everything from GNU and Symbolics to (as others have noted) PostgreSQL, Google and beyond.

Let's not forget programming languages like Python and Haskell. Even Facebook was conceived in a university environment, if not as a part of any specific research.

Re:Silly question (1)

clyde_cadiddlehopper (1052112) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527608)

Even Facebook was conceived in a university environment, if not as a part of any specific research.

Careful now, fella. You are coming darn close to saying something nice about Bill Gates. This *is* Slashdot, ya know.

LLVM (4, Informative)

Lally Singh (3427) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527348)

The backend for quite a few compilers, and a few shader compilers...

FalconView (1)

Philosa (1644339) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527360)

I'm not sure if "Research Institutes" count in your criteria, but as far as software for dealing with maps, [] comes immediately to mind.

Putty (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527366)

putty's core sw was academic

Other Successful Projects (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527376)

o The LLVM Compiler Infrastructure (University of Illinois, Chris Lattner's Master's Thesis)

o The Mosaic Web Browser (NCSA)

o The Apache Web Server (Based on a web server from NCSA)

o BSD Unix (which encompasses *a lot* of programs) (University of California Berkeley)

o The Pine mail reader (Washington University). Other mail readers were probably in academic institutions as well.

o Eudora (originally developed from NCSA, I think)

o Washington University IMAPd

o I think one or more versions of popd

o Potentially Valgrind (Julian Seward has a few papers on it)

o SESC (hardware simulator from University of Illinois, I think)

o I think VMWare was born out of a research project, but I can't find a definitive source.

Matchmoving software Icarus (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527382)

The University of Manchester developed a free matchmoving piece of software called Icarus ( You can still use the old versions of this software for free.

It was later turned into comercial software that is a major player in the comercial matchmoving software area:

Students are short term (2)

pavon (30274) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527384)

Is there any list of successful software created entirely inside universities' labs that became widely used?

That is an odd restriction to make. Students are only at university for a short time. If their work during that time turns into something useful then they naturally continue it after they leave, either as a an open source project or as a business venture. This is how it is meant to work, and there are tons of examples of such software.

MATLAB and Maple were both created at universities and later commercialized. Same for SPICE. On the open source side there is Apache, Sendmail, PostgreSQL, and the original implementations of nearly every RFC protocol on the internet.

Re:Students are short term (1)

Svartalf (2997) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527478)

Squid...don't forget that one...or Macsyma... :-D

Mosiac (3, Insightful)

Registered Coward v2 (447531) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527394)

From Univ of Illinois - it arguably changed the internet from a tool for techies to a new way to do business. One of the problems is if something is really good commercial companies may morph it into products that eclipse the original; but their contribution, when though of as basic research, was invaluable. So the definition of success should not be limited to widely used, popular, or well know; but also include defined a new industry or way of approaching a problem.

oblig TVTropes references... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527552)

See also, Adaptation Displacement [] .

Answered in the post (1)

ArhcAngel (247594) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527400)

Posted by timothy on Tuesday September 27, @10:41AM from the how-about-ncsa-mosaic dept. []


Arathon (1002016) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527420)

right up front: I know about this only because I work for these guys, but...

there's a whole host of Linear Algebra-related software written for high performance computing environments that is attributable largely to various teams of academics throughout the past 30 or so years. It is my understanding that these libraries get used by most anyone doing high-performance computing. [] []

The Web (1)

gzipped_tar (1151931) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527428)

Others have given pretty many examples. It may be worthwhile to mention the Web, from CERN []

Re:The Web (1)

PPH (736903) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527512)

The jury is still out on that success thing. FaceBook might just push the verdict the other way.

FFTW (1)

JambisJubilee (784493) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527446)

Here's a list of my (important) favorites:

meep (finite difference time domain electromagnetics)

FFTW (fourier transform)

MPB (photonic bandgap solver

Elmer (finite element solver)

Academic Designs (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527460)

Academic designs are even more successful than the software. My thesis is in silicon and on satellites, and I'm nobody special. Most tech companies have strong university ties. Students and professors have the time and skill to work out hard problems. Companies have the skills to build and sell the results. Lots of research code is written, but most of it is designed only as a tool for research, no more valuable than a research notebook or the contents of a whiteboard. What's learned is what gets used.

Many many examples (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527462)

Ship building and design:

The project started as a diploma work (for master degree) for projecting the airplane wing profile, which after that was extended to the ship's hull profile, and the rest is history.

Depends on who you ask... (3, Interesting)

PSandusky (740962) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527466)

Frequently the software doesn't start in a given academic lab, so much as it starts somewhere in a given research community and propagates to the academic labs as research needs dictate. ImageJ, for example, started at NIH, but now it's available to all and in use all over the place (including my lab).

Other software is developed cooperatively, and then academic contributions are added as they're needed to enable someone's research. If you run R (the statistical program) and start looking through all the extensions available in CRAN, you'll see tons of additions that have been generated in academic labs and released for use by the wider research community.

I work in biomechanics, and I've seen a few programs come out in that field through largely academic development. AnimatLab began (I think) at Georgia Tech, and I think Cofer et al. are still developing it within the university. OpenSim started at Stanford as an open source musculoskeletal simulation program, and is vastly preferable to the godawfully expensive SIMM, which does pretty much the same kinds of things. OpenSim is still alive and well at Stanford, although the developer network spans multiple institutions, academic and otherwise.

Much as I might wish that I could spend more of my time developing programs and playing with software within the academic sandbox, more often it's simply more practical to cast the nets for software from someone, somewhere doing somehow similar research, and then using the software you find if it's useful to your work, rather than reinventing the wheel in favor of advancing academic software development.

rsync (2)

Short Circuit (52384) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527470)

IIRC, rsync was the culmination of its original author's thesis.

Re:rsync (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527588) [] , who is also a contributor to Samba.

Paint .NET (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527474)

I believe that Paint .NET was developed in academia to teach students how to program in the .NET environment and it's become wildly successful and many plugins to add functionality are now available.

There was also an email system developed in academia named Pegasus Mail which was used by many cash strapped organizations for their complete email solution, though I think it's been displaced by now.

HPC Applications (1)

rockmuelle (575982) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527480)

A number of HPC applications funded by NSF/DARPA/DOE grants are able to provide a continued source of new research while maintaining and improving the applications.

One example is OpenMPI. BLAS/LINPACK/LAPACK are also examples. Some of the C++/Boost libraries also are maintained in academic, such as the Boost Graph Library.


Some examples (1)

vpaul (473197) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527488)

Hugin (well, at least parts of it), Postgres (at least its origins),
Emacs and other GNU software (RMS worked for an university then,
afaik), LISP from MIT, Pascal from ETH Zürich,
Python (at least originated) from CWI, ...

Ho ho ho (3, Informative)

anom (809433) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527498)

FWIW, I'm a PhD student at a reasonably large institution in the US.

Very little of this stuff sees the light of day. The vast majority of software is written simply as a proof of concept for some particular method/system/algorithm in order to get published. Good conferences/journals will typically want not only a well thought out idea, but an idea that you can and have implemented it to some extent, and that it works. That having been said, most of what gets produced is complete and total garbage -- typically just enough code to be able to prove that something runs correctly and in a given amount of time.

Personally, I have written a bunch of junk code during my time here. I'd like to think I know more or less how to write good code after all these years, but writing good, well documented, well tested code takes time we don't have -- writing code is simply a means to an end (publication) -- and so most of the code I write is hasty and ugly. This even applies to code that people say is for "wide distribution".

Before you go hounding on academia however, I'd warn that writing "good code" isn't really the point of what we're doing -- the point is to produce a reasonable method of solving some particular problem or type of problem. Going into bioinformatics for example, there are a whole bunch of problems that involve performing more efficient analysis of certain types of graphs. If a researcher discovers something along these lines, he/she will likely write some junk code to prove that the bare algorithm works, perform some analysis of it, publish it and move on. This may or may not end up actually being a useful improvement -- if it is however, then some implementer whose actual job it is to code whatever medical software might be using this algorithm then has a basic blueprint of how to proceed.

As for some examples of software from academia that have made it out, let me think...

Coverity - static code analysis tool, started at Stanford then moved into being a startup and is now quite successful
PostgreSQL - Originally from Berkeley
Bro (Intrusion Detection System) -- written by a researcher from Berkeley/ICSI -- is still somewhat "in academia", but I have heard of several production deployments

That's all I feel like coming up with right now, but I think the general pattern here is that if/when some piece of software produced in academia is seen to have value in its own right (e.g., away from the original research/publication that spawned it), it typically gets spun off in a start-up or a more concerted effort is given to its development, at which point one can actually spend the time to write good code.

Wuala (1)

Lazy Jones (8403) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527506)

Wuala [] is a recent example, developed at the ETH Zürich, then spun off and bought by LaCie.

A list (1)

Sangui5 (12317) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527514)

Firefox came from mozilla, which came from netscape, which came from NCSA Mosiac; done by Marc Andreessen at UIUC.

The LLVM compiler & runtime are both university projects from Vikram Adve @ UIUC.

VMWare came from SimOS, via Mendel Rosenblum of Stanford.

Coverity come from the work of Dawson Engler's students at Stanford.

BerkeleyDB started from work by Margo Seltzer at Berkeley.

Kerberos was done by Steve Miller and Clifford Neuman at MIT.

The Lustre filesystem is due to Peter Braam at CMU.

For a long time a lot of OSes used TCP/IP implementations out of academia (either Stanford, Berkeley, or University College London, depending).

Apache started as a series of patches against NCSA's HTTPd code (UIUC again).

PostgreSQL started from Ingres, which is from Micheal Stonebraker's group at Berkeley.

And now I'm bored looking these up. Let's just say there is a LOT of software that came out of academia.

Spotfire (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527522)

Visualization software, a commercialized version of the work done by Shneiderman and his students at the University of Maryland.

the R statistics package (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527528)

Pretty sure R started at a university. It's a GNU project now, does that disqualify due to the arbitrary criteria of the original question?

Loaded question (1)

stephanruby (542433) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527534)

This is a loaded question:

But my question is, how much of this software will see the light outside the universities?

The truth is that most software projects (even the ones developed outside of Universities) never get widely adopted. Just take a look at Sourceforge, how many of those projects become widely adopted? or even get anywhere? 1 percent? 0.00001 percent?

That being said, I believe Universities have a disproportionately strong influence on the software industry (which is by design of course). Take for instance, Intel, Linux, Google, InfoSeek, SendMail, Internet Explorer/Netscape (which both used the initial code base from Mosaic), Cisco, Yahoo, Sun, etc. They were all started initially as some kind of school projects.

Kuali and Sakai (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527542)

Why is everyone forgetting... (2)

j2kun (2353548) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527554)

PageRank! Google was just one big master's thesis. And quite academic, if you're a stranger to linear algebra.

Definitions of success. (1)

leastsquares (39359) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527566)

Does a software package need to be "widely used" to be classed as "successful"?

My company, for example, was built around an academic software package. We are nowhere near the league of the Googles or Oracles out there, but we provide a fair number of employees with a good salary. I'd never say our software was widely used as I can count our customer base on the digits of my hands and feet. Our kind of niche market will often use software from academia - because that's the main source of innovation - and the purely commercial argument for developing and validating the software in the first place would be weak.

To answer your question directly, in my field a vanishingly small fraction of academically developed software is ever used outside the research group that produced it. Even in the cases that the software would be more widely applicable, it just isn't shared/sold/licensed more widely. A couple of times, we have tried obtaining commercial rights to software that we thought could be valuable outside academia but we've never managed to negotiate realistic terms with the universities. Either the researchers aren't interested in pursuing this option as there is no personal reward for them, or the I.P. departments get greedy and the royalties they demand just makes the whole idea unviable.

Most projects spin off (1)

macwhizkid (864124) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527570)

If you're looking for examples of "successful software created entirely inside universities' labs", you're never going to find anything. University research is fundamentally different from product development. While a grad student or faculty member might do research on a hard problem and write some software to solve it and publish a paper, that software is going to be enormously buggy, perpetually incomplete, and probably require constant support in order to work at all.

But there's another side to it, which is that nobody's going to pay for that team of developers either. Even an R01 grant (the classic "run a research lab" grant) is around $250k/year in direct costs. You can't hire a full time .NET or Java developer (let alone a team of them) and pay your own salary and tuition for a couple grad students on that budget. Even if you could, you'd have a hard time justifying it as a research expense to the federal government.

So how does stuff end up on the market? Spin-offs, collaborations, and cross-licensing. Universities have smartly become much more willing to license out technology developed on campus, even when done 100% on University time & money. Having that flexibility encourages your smart people to think big, and discourages the best people from leaving to do it.

Well, there is the World Wide Web (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#37527612)

My understanding is that Tim Berners Lee convinced The Powers That Be at CERN that they shouldn't patent the Web. He created it originally to help world-wide high energy physics collaborations communicate with each other, but sensed the potential for others to use it.

Before the web, it was very very difficult and very expensive for members of the public as well as for small businesses to get connected to the Internet. There was no such thing as a commercial ISP. You needed to drop tens of thousands of dollars on a Cisco router and a leased phone line, and then you had to find someone already on the Internet that would agree to hook you up.

When I was a UCSC student in the mid to late 1980s, the entire campus shared a single leased 56 kilobaud connection to Stanford! No video pr0n, w4r3z or filesharing for us students, the best we could hope for was plain text email and maybe FTP of small files, because our filesystem quotas on the campus BSD machines (PDP-11s and VAXen) was 250 kb.

The Netscape browser was a fork of NCSA Mosaic. It had the two big improvements that it was multithreaded and that it would display JPEGs within the page, rather than launching an external JPEG viewing application.

The Apache HTTP server was originally "A Patch" (Get It?) on the NCSA HTTP server. After a while the set of patches grew unwieldy, so the Apache people just started maintaining their own fork of the server.

CERN produces a collossal High Energy Physics FORTRAN data analysis package called CERNLIB. It has all the Laws of Physics in it somewhere, other than Einstein's General Relativity (Gravity). Just about every High Energy Physicist uses it. I don't know whether it is used outside of academia, but it could be used to simulate other physical phenoma.

GNU Emacs was originally a macro package (EMACS = Editor Macros) for the Symbolics LISP Machine that someone - I don't know whether it was RMS - created at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. I don't know much more than that about the early history of Emacs, but I believe Richard Stallman rewrote it in C so he could do LISP programming on other kinds of operating systems.

The Zork text adventure game was originally a VAX/VMS text adventure game originally called just "adventure". I think it was written in FORTRAN. Zork was all the rage before video cards got to be so good. It worked great on MS-DOS!

The CLang C-Like Language compiler front-end and the LLVM code generation back end were created by the U of Illinois. They are now bundled with Apple Xcode for Mac OS X and iOS development.

In my experiance mostly no (1)

inhuman_4 (1294516) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527618)

While there are some academic software projects that make it big, that vast majority don't. This is because PhD's are trying to do research, publish, and get their doctorate, not write quality code. I know I would never release any of the code I have written so far, not because I'm anti-FOSS, but because the code is crap and I know it.

The software is written to see if something was possible, or to scratch some very specific itch. The result is that there is no documentation, very little abstraction, and a lot of cowboy coding. The problem is you write code to follow the results, so you cannot plan ahead. You can write beautiful code for a week, then get the results and discover the whole approach needs to be changed. You also tend to code very specific to the task because you don't want your results to be messed up by coding shortcuts or needless abstractions. But most important, for me at least, is time. Most PhD just don't have enough of it to spare starting and maintaing a project. Sometimes Profs do (Zeus bless them) but the students rarely.

What you do see happen is for research to prove something novel, then get rewritten to become a proper project sometimes FOSS, sometimes as the poduct of a new company. I have seen a few Profs. start open source projects and have their students work on it in partnership with other researchers, and that maybe more common in the future. But right now, most code never gets out and you wouldn't use it even if it did.

NetDot (Network Documentation Tool project) (1)

modestgeek (1449921) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527654)

I've been using a Network Documentation Tool (Netdot) for a while now. It is still in active development but certainly useful. It can easily be adapted to networks outside of academia. They implement feature requests pretty often too. []

listing successes (1)

Onymous Coward (97719) | more than 3 years ago | (#37527656)


But my question is, how much of this software will see the light outside the universities?

Impossible to answer. What defines a serious project versus someone's pet project or proof of concept? Then of those, how do you measure success? How many Sourceforge projects "see the light" outside Sourceforge?

Is there any list of successful software created entirely inside universities' labs that became widely used?

This is the question you seem to be getting an answer to in the forum here. Hopefully it helps.

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