MODELLING AND SIMULATION
Micro Saint Sharp 2.6
26 March 2008
Reviewed by Felix Grant
SAINT goes back a long way, in modern computing terms. Developed more than a quarter century ago for USAF human factors study, it was FORTRAN based and ran on mainframes. Micro SAINT, designed to run on the IBM personal computers of the 1980s, marked a major step forward in flexibility and usability. Micro Saint Sharp has, over the past few years, taken several steps in further embedding SAINT approaches in current practice by providing a product designed for a Windows environments and based in the C# language. The well established structure of entities travelling through a task and queue network defined by variables, with event and clock triggered value snapshots feeding back into the structure, is conceptually unchanged despite the more efficient methodologies behind it. The current release 2·6 is an impressive piece of work; the reviewed copy was the Gold version, which has a few extra tricks.
There are a lot of things that distinguish MSS from the general shape of simulation modelling software, and only a quick dip is possible in a review. Sheer capability is one of them; this is the monster truck of its field, the underlying tools provide a degree of power and flexibility which are hard to compete with. Another, perhaps the most visibly beguiling, is the Gold version’s animation facility for setting up a symbolised virtual world environment within which the elements and processes of the task network can be visualised as objectified avatars and movements in two or three dimensions. Points of view, images and text in space, representative objects, can all be controlled from the coded processes, giving a richly layered sensory rendition of data perception. The degree of rendered resolution and sophistication of modality present in some analytic software is not here yet, but the framework is definitely in place and a new symbolic entity customisation editor shows that the rest is on its way. Then there is the breadth and depth of monitoring and data collection options.
Top of the new additions list in this release are dynamic change of variable values during execution of the model and a entity handling aspects. Variable values are altered simply by tying new values into the 'watches window' where they are monitored, and the model takes them up immediately. Customisation of symbolic entities is noted above, and there is a generator object which can automate injection of new entities into models processes according to a range of criteria including type, lifetime, and distribution of occurrence. There are other useful incremental developments in debugging, error checking, formatting and housekeeping. If you have 2003 or newer) versions of Microsoft Excel or Visio, you can pull in material from those.
There are a couple of peripheral caveats which I have, although they are personal and may well not matter to others. The first is copy protection. It is, of course, essential these days for any software publisher (especially one working in a high unit value market) to safeguard against piracy; and every method of doing so will probably irritate somebody. It just happens that hardware dongles are my least favourite option – but the well established and widely trusted SafeNet system is used here.
Second is 'newbie friendliness' at the initial learning curve. Not having had close experience of SAINT variants for some time, and suspecting that I had gone soft, I spent some time carting my review copy around on a laptop for a number of colleagues and students to look at. Those familiar with similar environments couldn’t see what I was talking about; those new to them agreed that some attention might be given in future releases to making that first user experience a little more cuddly. On the other hand, of course, unprepared and unaccompanied individuals are unlikely to encounter MSS. There is ample support for new installations: a full set of tutorials, an initial training course (two days at Letchworth in the UK, for example), “designed to take completely novice users to a sufficient level that they can simulate relatively complex networks with complex logic”, and a year’s maintenance support. Organisations which can make use of such a product will, of course, establish their own in house or contracted out training programmes for new users
If your work is at a level of depth, difficulty, complexity and mission criticality which justifies investment at the price and implementation level which Micro Saint Sharp occupies (a task too big for it to handle is hard to imagine), then it may well be the only serious option for consideration. There are combinations and subtleties of control, power and yield which would be hard to match elsewhere.