Jane Hillston, a reader in Edinburgh University's informatics division, developed Performance Evaluation Process Algebra (Pepa) as a formal language for modelling distributed systems before they are set in software - when making changes becomes more difficult and expensive.
System components which perform activities on their own or with others are put into a Pepa model, each with an estimate of the rate at which an activity will be performed and the relative probability of their behaviour.
The model highlights bottlenecks and other issues, helping developers decide whether performance and other requirements are going to be met. Components and their relationships can then be amended and run through the model again before coding starts.
Computer scientists who have used Pepa say Hillston has made new discoveries in the analysis of random probability.
They also say Pepa beats other modelling languages by combining features which are not available together elsewhere. These include the ability to model a system as the interaction of subsystems, the ability to build complex models from detailed components but disregard detail when appropriate, and formality in terms of giving precise meaning to all the language terms.
Pepa has been used in the development of mobile phone networks, databases, diagnostic systems, robots, lift systems, online auction services and multimedia communication systems.
It has also been used outside IT, notably to analyse the performance of locks on Belgium's ZeeKanaal.
Software tools to support the language have been produced by users around the world.
Andrew Herbert, managing director of award sponsor Microsoft Research Cambridge, said, "This research is already impacting beyond its primary focus and contributing to further computer science, as well as attracting major interest throughout the research community."
Hillston won praise from BCS president Wendy Hall, who said, "Jane Hillston is a shining example to women considering a career in IT and a reminder that our profession is changing fast."
"Not only is she a young, up-and-coming IT academic, she perfectly balances her IT career with her role as a mother of two young children. The UK IT profession desperately needs more like her to change its male-dominated image."