Specification explosion

To verify software, we must specify it; otherwise there is nothing to verify against. People often cite the burden of specification as the major obstacle toward making verification practical. At issue are not only the effort required to express the goals of software elements (their contracts) but also intermediate assertions, or “verification conditions”, including loop invariants, required by the machinery of verification.

At a Microsoft Software Verification summer school [1] in Moscow on July 18 — the reason why there was no article on this blog last week — Stefan Tobies, one of the lecturers, made the following observation about the specification effort needed to produce fully verified software. In his experience, he said, the ratio of specification lines to program lines is three to one.

Such a specification explosion, to coin a phrase, has to be addressed by any practical approach to verification. It would be interesting to get estimates from others with verification experience.

Reducing specification explosion  is crucial to the Eiffel effort to provide “Verification As a Matter Of Course” [2]. The following three techniques should go a long way:

  • Loop invariant inference. Programmers can be expected to write contracts expressing the purpose of routines (preconditions, postconditions) and classes (class invariants), but often balk at writing the intermediate assertions necessary to prove the correctness of loops. An earlier article [3] mentioned some ongoing work on this problem and I hope to come back to the topic.
  • Frame conventions. As another recent article has discussed [4], a simple language convention can dramatically reduce the number of assertions by making frame conditions explicit.
  • Model-based contracts. This technique calls for a separate article; the basic idea is to express the effect of operations through high-level mathematical models relying on a library that describe such mathematical abstractions as sets, relations, functions and graphs.

The risk of specification explosion is serious enough to merit a concerted defense.



[1] Summer School in Software Engineering and Verification, details here.

[2] Verification As a Matter Of Course, slides of a March 2010 talk, see an earlier article on this blog.

[3] Contracts written by people, contracts written by machines, an earlier article on this blog.

[4] If I’m not pure, at least my functions are, an earlier article on this blog.

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