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AT HP THESE DAYS, OLD SOFTWARE NEVER DIES

As a $13 billion-a-year maker of computers, laser printers, calculators, medical systems, and electronic test gear, Hewlett-Packard Co. produces gobs of software every year. About 60% of its research and development funds and personnel are devoted to programming and improving the software-creation process. Several years ago, HP's top engineers realized that they could get a tremendous productivity boost if they could somehow reuse old chunks of software in new products--thus reducing the need to write new software from scratch for every new computer or heart monitor. Since then, a software revolution has been quietly brewing at the Silicon Valley giant.

The leader of the movement is Martin Griss, a cherubic South African who has proclaimed himself HP's ''reuse rabbi.'' He figures that if HP really gets serious about recycling its software, the company can save a cool $100 million annually.

QUALITY AND SAVINGS. So, when he's not pursuing his hobby, what he calls ''object-oriented painting,'' Griss spends much of his time shuttling among HP's many software facilities around the world. There, he encourages engineers to consider reusing software at the start of every programming project. That means looking for useful chunks of software that already exist in other parts of HP and designing new bits of software in such a way that others can easily use them. Programming groups can try whatever techniques they want, but Griss advocates a gradual shift to object-oriented methods, because they offer the greatest potential for reuse. ''We're not driving people to use objects,'' says Griss. ''We're taking one bite at object-oriented programming at a time.''

The reuse message seems to be getting through. One good example is a massive manufacturing program that helps HP customers keep tabs on their inventory and factory operations. Griss helped persuade programmers in four different HP divisions to swap preused software with each other instead of creating everything from scratch. Turns out the programmers were able to take 40% of their software from existing programs. That translates into savings of 15% in development costs, says Griss. And, because used software doesn't need as much tinkering, he estimates that maintenance costs will be less than half what they would be for virgin code. Better still, the quality went up--from four defects per 1,000 lines of code to only four per 10,000 lines.

Another standout success is CareVue 9000, a network of workstations that helps nurses record and manage patient information. HP's programmers faced an enormously complex task: The system would have to anticipate every hospital's unique record-keeping and medical procedures. ''The last thing the system should do is dictate one way of doing things,'' says Robert Seliger, system architect at HP's clinical-information-systems operation.

'ROLL THEIR OWN.' So his team chose an object-based design that would let each hospital mold and extend CareVue to its specific needs. Objects ''let the hospitals roll their own'' software, Seliber says. For example, they can create data-entry forms that look just like the paper ones their nurses have always used. But the electronic objects work better because the program can easily adapt to the types of treatments in which each hospital specializes.

Despite these successes, Griss says that he still often encounters reluctance among HP engineering groups to buy his message. ''The impediments,'' he says, ''are social more than technical.'' Engineers sometimes feel they should be paid more for the extra work that's needed to make software modules that can be used by others. Moreover, they often don't think to look for prewritten components until it's too late. But Griss is there, as he puts it, ''to let people know there's good stuff in the library.'' A reuse rabbi's work is never done.

John W. Verity in New York


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