A life in data

Flow chart Charlie Bachman has spent over 40 years in the software development industry and specialised in database systems. Prior to him giving a speech to the Data Management Specialist Group he spoke to Henry Tucker about databases, the future and economic constraints.

What first interested you about databases and why did you decide to dedicate much of your working life to them?

My first involvement in large integrated files of data began at the Dow Chemical Company in the mid 1950s. The primary focus was on files relating to products, customers, orders, line-items on orders and inventories. We were working on these files with IBM punched card equipment. The records were continually being sorted from one sequence to another to create another of the standard monthly reports for the sales department.

The word, database had not yet been invented. I doubt that it ever existed in its original form, data base.

I can not claim any decision to dedicate my working life to databases. I consider myself to be a problem solver, an inventor. There were always enough data oriented problems on the horizon to keep me busy in some form or another: databases, data communication, data modelling, data independence, data sharing, etc.

As databases hold more information on us what do you think should be done to make them more secure?

There are really two problems. Firstly is the problem with stolen or misused access to data, and secondly the problem with illegal or inappropriate modification, or the creation of new data. I have not spent much time working the first problem and know it only from the nuisance of working with identifiers and passwords. That is a troubling and not completely adequate approach. 

On the second problem, I believe in and have recommended that the person, or persons who are involved in the creation, modification, or deletion of data should be recorded and that record associated with the data of their creation. Their authorship should be recorded along with the data so that others can observe who the authors are and evaluate the authorship appropriately. Some transactions or edits might be classified as to requiring a dual authorship to authorize changes.

The user ID and password protection against unauthorised access might be extended to protect against unauthorised update and that with the publicising of the authorising user.

In the current economic climate where financial restrictions will inevitably have an effect on IT infrastructures what are your thoughts regarding businesses approach to IT spending?

IT expenditures, as any other capital project need to be planned with careful estimates of both reoccurring annual expenses and the one time capital expenditures. These need to be combined in a discounted cash flow calculation where the depreciation rate and the discount rate are been based on senior management's evaluation of the project. 

Savings next year, or the year after, are not as valuable as expenditures this year.

I built a system for the Dow Chemical Company in 1951 as my first assignment in the engineering department to be used in evaluating new engineering projects. IT projects are no different. It was called the Equivalent Capital system.

Continuing manpower and utilities, capital costs for engineering and construction, the project risk factor, and the corporate expected rate of return were all feed into the calculations along with the expected annual savings or earnings from the project.

The project had one equivalent capital cost and one equivalent capital return. If the equivalent capital cost was less than the equivalent capital return, the project was expected to pay off, else it was expected to loose money.

In your opinion what are the big challenges for the future of databases?

IT systems are off the shelf and bespoke suites. The choice is effected by the characteristics of the project and by its public appreciation. The choice of off the shelf application systems and bespoke applications is very much effected by the ability to get an off the shelf application fitting the business requirement and the degree that the application is central to the business or organisations view of itself in its world.

Off the shelf applications typically come with their own off the shelf database design and run on off the shelf databases. It is hard to justify the creation of a new DBMS. It is easier to justify using an off the shelf application system and its database design.

The biggest challenge of yesterday, today and tomorrow will be integrating that new application system with all of the existing application systems.

That integration is the biggest challenge. My lecture before the BCS Database Management interest group and UK DAMA (Tuesday, October 21), Themes and Directions, will be focusing on this issue,

BCS is pursuing professionalism in IT - what are your thoughts on this?

While working for The Dow Chemical Company during the 1950s, I studied for and passed the examination to become a registered mechanical engineer. I believe in professionalism.  Professional people offer a defined service and should be able to deliver that service dependably. 

However, my career has been that of an inventor. Inventors play a different role. There are no registered inventors. The process of invention is neither predictable nor dependable.

Project failure is a big subject in the UK and you've been involved in some big projects before, what have you learned from them to make them successful?

Big projects are generally bespoke projects. They, by definition, require some invention because they are attempting to do something that can not be supplied by an off the shelf system. 

An approach that has been recommended to me as best practice in 2008 is to first build an enterprise model (conceptual schema) of the business to be supported, and then see if it can be subdivided and implemented using several off the shelf systems. Use the available inventiveness in the project staff to construct the message channels and transformations that are required to patch together the off the shelf elements. 

This approach does not really appeal to Charlie Bachman, the inventor. But it is sound engineering practice.

Who in the IT industry inspired you / was a role model for you?

The inventors, the developers of new concepts, the solvers of previously unsolved problems, the assemblers of new and interesting combinations of old technologies. Take Sir Maurice Wilkes, Edgars Deijstra, Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

October 2008