Specify less to prove more

Software verification is progressing slowly but surely. Much of that progress is incremental: making the fundamental results applicable to real programs as they are built every day by programmers working in standard circumstances. A key condition is to minimize the amount of annotations that they have to provide.

The article mentioned in my previous post, “Program Checking With Less Hassle” [1], to be presented at VSTTE in San Francisco on Friday by its lead author, Julian Tschannen, introduces several interesting contributions in this direction. One of the surprising conclusions is that sometimes it pays to specify less. That goes against intuition: usually, the more specification information (correctness annotations) you provide the more you help the prover. But in fact partial specifications can hurt rather than help. Consider for example a swap routine with a partial specification, which actually stands in the way of a proof. If modularity is not a concern, for example if the routine is part of the code being verified rather than of a library, it may be more effective to ignore the specification and use the routine’s implementation. This is particularly appropriate for smallhelper routines such as the swap example.

This inlining technique is applicable in other cases, for example to make up for a missing precondition: assume that a helper routine will only work for x > 0 but does not state that precondition, or maybe states only the weaker one x ≥ 0 ; in the code, however, it is only called with positive arguments. If we try to verify the code modularly we will fail, as indeed we should since the routine is incorrect as a general-purpose primitive. But within the context of the code there is nothing wrong with it. Forgetting the contract of the routine if any, and instead using its actual implementation, we may be able to show that everything is fine.

Another component of the approach is to fill in preconditions that programmers have omitted because they are somehow obvious to them. For example it is tempting and common to write just a [1] > 0 rather than a /= Void and then a [1] > 0 for a detachable array a. The tool takes care of  interpreting the simpler precondition as the more complete one.

The resulting “two-step verification”, integrated into the AutoProof verification tool for Eiffel, should turn out to be an important simplification towards the goal of “Verification As a Matter Of Course” [2].


[1] Julian Tschannen, Carlo A. Furia, Martin Nordio and Bertrand Meyer: Program Checking With Less Hassle, in VSTTE 2013, Springer LNCS, to appear, draft available here; presentation on May 17 in the 15:30-16:30  session.

[2] Verification As a Matter Of Course, article in this blog, 29 March 2010, see here.

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