This report continues the series of ICSE 2013 article previews (see the posts of these last few days, other than the DOSE announcement), but is different from its predecessors since it talks about a paper from our group at ETH, so you should not expect any dangerously delusional, disingenuously dubious or downright deceptive declaration or display of dispassionate, disinterested, disengaged describer’s detachment.
The paper  (mentioned on this blog some time ago) is entitled How good are software specifications? and will be presented on Wednesday by Nadia Polikarpova. The basic result: stronger specifications, which capture a more complete part of program functionality, cause only a modest increase in specification effort, but the benefits are huge; in particular, automatic testing finds twice as many faults (“bugs” as recently reviewed papers call them).
Strong specifications are specifications that go beyond simple contracts. A straightforward example is a specification of a push operation for stacks; in EiffelBase, the basic Eiffel data structure library, the contract’s postcondition will read
item = x /A/
count = old count + 1
where x is the element being pushed, item the top of the stack and count the number of elements. It is of course sound, since it states that the element just pushed is now the new top of the stack, and that there is one more element; but it is also incomplete since it says nothing about the other elements remaining as they were; an implementation could satisfy the contract and mess up with these elements. Using “complete” or “strong” preconditions, we associate with the underlying domain a theory , or “model”, represented by a specification-only feature in the class, model, denoting a sequence of elements; then it suffices (with the convention that the top is the first element of the model sequence, and that “+” denotes concatenation of sequences) to use the postcondition
model = <x> + old model /B/
which says all there is to say and implies the original postconditions /A/.
Clearly, the strong contracts, in the /B/ style, are more expressive [3, 4], but they also require more specification effort. Are they worth the trouble?
The paper explores this question empirically, and the answer, at least according to the criteria used in the study, is yes. The work takes advantage of AutoTest , an automatic testing framework which relies on the contracts already present in the software to serve as test oracles, and generates test cases automatically. AutoTest was applied to both to the classic EiffelBase, with classic partial contracts in the /A/ style, and to the more recent EiffelBase+ library, with strong contracts in the /B/ style. AutoTest is for Eiffel programs; to check for any language-specificity in the results the work also included testing a smaller set of classes from a C# library, DSA, for which a student developed a version (DSA+) equipped with strong model-based contracts. In that case the testing tool was Microsoft Research’s Pex . The results are similar for both languages: citing from the paper, “the fault rates are comparable in the C# experiments, respectively 6 . 10-3 and 3 . 10-3 . The fault complexity is also qualitatively similar.”
The verdict on the effect of strong specifications as captured by automated testing is clear: the same automatic testing tools applied to the versions with strong contracts yield twice as many real faults. The term “real fault” comes from excluding spurious cases, such as specification faults (wrong specification, right implementation), which are a phenomenon worth studying but should not count as a benefit of the strong specification approach. The paper contains a detailed analysis of the various kinds of faults and the corresponding empirically determined measures. This particular analysis is for the Eiffel code, since in the C#/Pex case “it was not possible to get an evaluation of the faults by the original developers“.
In our experience the strong specifications are not that much harder to write. The paper contains a precise measure: about five person-weeks to create EiffelBase+, yielding an “overall benefit/effort ratio of about four defects detected per person-day“. Such a benefit more than justifies the effort. More study of that effort is needed, however, because the “person” in the person-weeks was not just an ordinary programmer. True, Eiffel experience has shown that most programmers quickly get the notion of contract and start applying it; as the saying goes in the community, “if you can write an if-then-else, you can write a contract”. But we do not yet have significant evidence of whether that observation extends to model-based contracts.
Model-based contracts (I prefer to call them “theory-based” because “model” means so many other things, but I do not think I will win that particular battle) are, in my opinion, a required component of the march towards program verification. They are the right compromise between simple contracts, which have proved to be attractive to many practicing programmers but suffer from incompleteness, and full formal specification à la Z, which say everything but require too much machinery. They are not an all-or-nothing specification technique but a progressive one: programmers can start with simple contracts, then extend and refine them as desired to yield exactly the right amount of precision and completeness appropriate in any particular context. The article shows that the benefits are well worth the incremental effort.
According to the ICSE program the talk will be presented in the formal specification session, Wednesday, May 22, 13:30-15:30, Grand Ballroom C.
 Nadia Polikarpova, Carlo A. Furia, Yu Pei, Yi Wei and Bertrand Meyer: What Good Are Strong Specifications?, to appear in ICSE 2013 (Proceedings of 35th International Conference on Software Engineering), San Francisco, May 2013, draft available here.
 Bertrand Meyer: Domain Theory: the forgotten step in program verification, article on this blog, see here.
 Bernd Schoeller, Tobias Widmer and Bertrand Meyer: Making Specifications Complete Through Models, in Architecting Systems with Trustworthy Components, eds. Ralf Reussner, Judith Stafford and Clemens Szyperski, Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Springer-Verlag, 2006, available here.
 Nadia Polikarpova, Carlo Furia and Bertrand Meyer: Specifying Reusable Components, in Verified Software: Theories, Tools, Experiments (VSTTE ‘ 10), Edinburgh, UK, 16-19 August 2010, Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Springer Verlag, 2010, available here.
 Bertrand Meyer, Ilinca Ciupa, Andreas Leitner, Arno Fiva, Yi Wei and Emmanuel Stapf: Programs that Test Themselves, IEEE Computer, vol. 42, no. 9, pages 46-55, September 2009, also available here.
 Bertrand Meyer, Ilinca Ciupa, Andreas Leitner, Arno Fiva, Yi Wei and Emmanuel Stapf: Programs that Test Themselves, in IEEE Computer, vol. 42, no. 9, pages 46-55, September 2009, also available here.
 Nikolai Tillman and Peli de Halleux, Pex: White-Box Generation for .NET, in Tests And Proofs (TAP 2008), pp. 134-153.