Microsoft Research PhD studentship:
Provenance for Configuration Language Security

Project: Provenance for Configuration Language Security
Supervisors:James Cheney and Paul Anderson
Deadline:We can consider applications at any time (starting 2013 or 2014 academic year or potentially other times).

We seek strong candidates for Microsoft-funded PhD studentship on the topic of provenance for configuration language security. The PhD scholarship is fully funded for three years. The project will be supervised by James Cheney and Paul Anderson of the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh, in collaboration with Dr Dimitrios Vytiniotis at Microsoft Research Cambridge.

Project description

Declarative, high-level configuration languages (e.g. LCFG, Puppet, Chef) are widely used in industry to configure large system installations.

Configurations are often composed from distributed source files managed by many different users within different system and organisational boundaries. Users may make changes whose consequences are not easy to understand, and such systems also currently lack mature security access controls; the few currently available techniques have idiosyncratic behaviour and offer no formal guarantees.

In the worst case, misconfiguration can lead to costly system failures; because of the complexity of the configuration build, it is difficult to recover from failures, trace the source of the error or identify the responsible party.

In this project, we will explore the application of provenance techniques (originally developed in the context of databases) to establishing well-founded and effective techniques for security and audit for configuration languages. For more about the project, please see the research proposal.

Background Required

This project would be suitable for a student with some background in programming languages, semantics, or security, and interest in applications to system configuration and other industrially-relevant problems.


The University of Edinburgh School of Informatics brings together world-class research groups in theoretical computer science, artificial intelligence and cognitive science. The School led the UK 2008 RAE rankings in volume of internationally recognised or internationally excellent research.

The Laboratory for Foundations of Computer Science (LFCS) established by Burstall, Milner and Plotkin in 1986, is recognized worldwide for groundbreaking research on topics in programming languages, semantics, type theory, proof theory, algorithms and complexity, databases, security, and systems biology. Formal aspects of databases, XML and provenance (Libkin, Fan, Buneman), language-based security (Aspinall, Stark, Gordon), and Web programming languages (Wadler) are active areas of investigation in LFCS, and the PhD student project will therefore take place in an ideal setting to benefit from interaction with colleagues in these areas.

For more information about study in Edinburgh and the School of Informatics, see these pages:

Application instructions

Funding Notes

The Microsoft scholarship consists of an annual bursary up to a maximum of three years. During the course of their PhD, the Scholar will be invited to Microsoft Research in Cambridge for an annual PhD Summer School. There may also be opportunities for paid internships at Microsoft Research, but that is entirely at the discretion of Microsoft Research, Cambridge.

This studentship is fully funded (fees and stipend) for UK and EU students. We welcome overseas applicants, and can provide funding for EU fees and maintenance for overseas students. The remaining fees component will need to come from another source. Competitive overseas applicants are advised to apply for other scholarships to make up the difference.


For full consideration for funding, a formal application must be made by the deadline of December 13, 2013. Follow this link to go straight to the application page. Further instructions about the application process can be found here.

Applications will be considered until the position is filled, for a start of Autumn 2014 at the latest. A strong candidate who qualifies for UK/EU fees could in principle start at any time. Overseas candidates must apply by December 13, 2013, and to be considered for a fully-funded offer from the University, must also apply for Edinburgh Global Research Scholarships by February 1, 2014. Overseas candidates should also consider other sources of funding, as described here. For all candidates, contacting the supervisors to discuss the student's background and suitability before applying is strongly recommended.

Please contact James Cheney ( or Paul Anderson ( or both before the deadline. Attach a CV, transcript, and a brief statement explaining why you are a good match for this scholarship. The formal application will require a 1-2 page research proposal; you may attach a draft for discussion. The 1-2 page research proposal in the application should explain why the applicant is interested in the project and what they bring to the project (demonstrating some insight into the project), not just be a copy of/summary of our proposal.

Further information about application is available here.

Last modified: Wed Nov 27 08:54:58 CST 2013