Archive for the ‘Formal methods and proofs’ Category.

TOOLS 2012, “The Triumph of Objects”, Prague in May: Call for Workshops

Workshop proposals are invited for TOOLS 2012, The Triumph of Objectstools.ethz.ch, to be held in Prague May 28 to June 1. TOOLS is a federated set of conferences:

  • TOOLS EUROPE 2012: 50th International Conference on Objects, Models, Components, Patterns.
  • ICMT 2012: 5th International Conference on Model Transformation.
  • Software Composition 2012: 10th International Conference.
  • TAP 2012: 6th International Conference on Tests And Proofs.
  • MSEPT 2012: International Conference on Multicore Software Engineering, Performance, and Tools.

Workshops, which are normally one- or two-day long, provide organizers and participants with an opportunity to exchange opinions, advance ideas, and discuss preliminary results on current topics. The focus can be on in-depth research topics related to the themes of the TOOLS conferences, on best practices, on applications and industrial issues, or on some combination of these.

SUBMISSION GUIDELINES

Submission proposal implies the organizers’ commitment to organize and lead the workshop personally if it is accepted. The proposal should include:

  •  Workshop title.
  • Names and short bio of organizers .
  • Proposed duration.
  •  Summary of the topics, goals and contents (guideline: 500 words).
  •  Brief description of the audience and community to which the workshop is targeted.
  • Plans for publication if any.
  • Tentative Call for Papers.

Acceptance criteria are:

  • Organizers’ track record and ability to lead a successful workshop.
  •  Potential to advance the state of the art.
  • Relevance of topics and contents to the topics of the TOOLS federated conferences.
  •  Timeliness and interest to a sufficiently large community.

Please send the proposals to me (Bertrand.Meyer AT inf.ethz.ch), with a Subject header including the words “TOOLS WORKSHOP“. Feel free to contact me if you have any question.

DATES

  •  Workshop proposal submission deadline: 17 February 2012.
  • Notification of acceptance or rejection: as promptly as possible and no later than February 24.
  • Workshops: 28 May to 1 June 2012.

 

VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 7.3/10 (3 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)

The story of our field, in a few short words

 

(With all dues to [1], but going up from four to five as it is good to be brief yet not curt.)

At the start there was Alan. He was the best of all: built the right math model (years ahead of the real thing in any shape, color or form); was able to prove that no one among us can know for sure if his or her loops — or their code as a whole — will ever stop; got to crack the Nazis’ codes; and in so doing kind of saved the world. Once the war was over he got to build his own CPUs, among the very first two or three of any sort. But after the Brits had used him, they hated him, let him down, broke him (for the sole crime that he was too gay for the time or at least for their taste), and soon he died.

There was Ed. Once upon a time he was Dutch, but one day he got on a plane and — voilà! — the next day he was a Texan. Yet he never got the twang. The first topic that had put him on  the map was the graph (how to find a path, as short as can be, from a start to a sink); he also wrote an Algol tool (the first I think to deal with all of Algol 60), and built an OS made of many a layer, which he named THE in honor of his alma mater [2]. He soon got known for his harsh views, spoke of the GOTO and its users in terms akin to libel, and wrote words, not at all kind, about BASIC and PL/I. All this he aired in the form of his famed “EWD”s, notes that he would xerox and send by post along the globe (there was no Web, no Net and no Email back then) to pals and foes alike. He could be kind, but often he stung. In work whose value will last more, he said that all we must care about is to prove our stuff right; or (to be more close to his own words) to build it so that it is sure to be right, and keep it so from start to end, the proof and the code going hand in hand. One of the keys, for him, was to use as a basis for ifs and loops the idea of a “guard”, which does imply that the very same code can in one case print a value A and in some other case print a value B, under the watch of an angel or a demon; but he said this does not have to be a cause for worry.

At about that time there was Wirth, whom some call Nick, and Hoare, whom all call Tony. (“Tony” is short for a list of no less than three long first names, which makes for a good quiz at a party of nerds — can you cite them all from rote?) Nick had a nice coda to Algol, which he named “W”; what came after Algol W was also much noted, but the onset of Unix and hence of C cast some shade over its later life. Tony too did much to help the field grow. Early on, he had shown a good way to sort an array real quick. Later he wrote that for every type of unit there must be an axiom or a rule, which gives it an exact sense and lets you know for sure what will hold after every run of your code. His fame also comes from work (based in part on Ed’s idea of the guard, noted above) on the topic of more than one run at once, a field that is very hot today as the law of Moore nears its end and every maker of chips has moved to  a mode where each wafer holds more than one — and often many — cores.

Dave (from the US, but then at work under the clime of the North) must not be left out of this list. In a paper pair, both from the same year and both much cited ever since,  he told the world that what we say about a piece of code must only be a part, often a very small part, of what we could say if we cared about every trait and every quirk. In other words, we must draw a clear line: on one side, what the rest of the code must know of that one piece; on the other, what it may avoid to know of it, and even not care about. Dave also spent much time to argue that our specs must not rely so much on logic, and more on a form of table.  In a later paper, short and sweet, he told us that it may not be so bad that you do not apply full rigor when you chart your road to code, as long as you can “fake” such rigor (his own word) after the fact.

Of UML, MDA and other such TLAs, the less be said, the more happy we all fare.

A big step came from the cold: not just one Norse but two, Ole-J (Dahl) and Kris, came up with the idea of the class; not just that, but all that makes the basis of what today we call “O-O”. For a long time few would heed their view, but then came Alan (Kay), Adele and their gang at PARC, who tied it all to the mouse and icons and menus and all the other cool stuff that makes up a good GUI. It still took a while, and a lot of hit and miss, but in the end O-O came to rule the world.

As to the math basis, it came in part from MIT — think Barb and John — and the idea, known as the ADT (not all TLAs are bad!), that a data type must be known at a high level, not from the nuts and bolts.

There also is a guy with a long first name (he hates it when they call him Bert) but a short last name. I feel a great urge to tell you all that he did, all that he does and all that he will do, but much of it uses long words that would seem hard to fit here; and he is, in any case, far too shy.

It is not all about code and we must not fail to note Barry (Boehm), Watts, Vic and all those to whom we owe that the human side (dear to Tom and Tim) also came to light. Barry has a great model that lets you find out, while it is not yet too late, how much your tasks will cost; its name fails me right now, but I think it is all in upper case.  At some point the agile guys — Kent (Beck) and so on — came in and said we had got it all wrong: we must work in pairs, set our goals to no more than a week away, stand up for a while at the start of each day (a feat known by the cool name of Scrum), and dump specs in favor of tests. Some of this, to be fair, is very much like what comes out of the less noble part of the male of the cow; but in truth not all of it is bad, and we must not yield to the urge to throw away the baby along with the water of the bath.

I could go on (and on, and on); who knows, I might even come back at some point and add to this. On the other hand I take it that by now you got the idea, and even on this last day of the week I have other work to do, so ciao.

Notes

[1] Al’s Famed Model Of the World, In Words Of Four Signs Or Fewer (not quite the exact title, but very close): find it on line here.

[2] If not quite his alma mater in the exact sense of the term, at least the place where he had a post at the time. (If we can trust this entry, his true alma mater would have been Leyde, but he did not stay long.)

VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 10.0/10 (14 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: +11 (from 11 votes)

The charming naïveté of an IEEE standard

The IEEE Standard for Requirements Specifications [1], a short and readable text providing concrete and useful advice, is a valuable guide for anyone writing requirements. In our course projects we always require students to follow its recommended structure.

Re-reading it recently, I noticed the following extract  in the section that argues that a  requirements specification should be verifiable (sentence labels in brackets are my addition):

[A] Nonverifiable requirements include statements such as “works well,” “good human interface,” and “shall usually happen.” [B] These requirements cannot be verified because it is impossible to define the terms “good,” “well,” or “usually.”

[C] The statement that “the program shall never enter an infinite loop” is nonverifiable because the testing of this quality is theoretically impossible.

[D] An example of a verifiable statement is
      [E] “Output of the program shall be produced within 20 s of event 60% of the time; and shall be produced within 30 s of event 100% of the time.”
[F] This statement can be verified because it uses concrete terms and measurable quantities.

[A] and [B] are good advice, deserving to be repeated in every software engineering course and to anyone writing requirements. [C], however, is puzzling.

One might initially understand that the authors are telling us that it is impossible to devise a finite set of tests guaranteeing that a program terminates. But on closer examination this cannot be what they mean. Such a statement, although correct, would be uninteresting since it can be applied to any functional requirement: if I say “the program shall accept an integer as input and print out that same integer on the output”, I also cannot test that (trivial) requirement finitely since I would have to try all integers. The same observation applies to the example given in [D, E, F]: the property [D] they laud as an example of a  “verifiable” requirement is just as impossible to test exhaustively [2].

Since the literal interpretation of [C] is trivial and applies to essentially all possible requirements, whether bad or good in the authors’ eyes, they must mean something else when they cite loop termination as their example of a nonverifiable requirement. The word “theoretically” suggests what they have in mind: the undecidability results of computation theory, specifically the undecidability of the Halting Problem. It is well known that no general mechanism exists to determine whether an arbitrary program, or even just an arbitrary loop, will terminate. This must be what they are referring to.

Except, of course, that they are wrong. And a very good thing too that they are wrong, since “The program shall never enter an infinite loop” is a pretty reasonable requirement for any system [3].

If we were to accept [C], we would also accept that it is OK for any program to enter an infinite loop every once in a while, because the authors of its requirements were not permitted to specify otherwise! Fortunately for users of software systems, this particular sentence of the standard is balderdash.

What the halting property states, of course, is that no general mechanism exists that could examine an arbitrary program or loop and tell us whether it will always terminate. This result in no way excludes the possibility of verifying (although not through “testing”) that a particular program or loop will terminate. If the text of a program shows that it will print “Hello World” and do nothing else, we can safely determine that it will terminate. If a loop is of the form

from i := 1 until i > 10 loop
…..print (i)
…..i := i + 1
end

there is also no doubt about its termination. More complex examples require the techniques of modern program verification, such as exhibiting a loop variant in the sense of Hoare logic, but they can still be practically tractable.

Like many fundamental results of modern science (think of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle), Turing’s demonstration of the undecidability of the Halting Problem is at the same time simple to state, striking, deep, and easy to misunderstand. It is touchingly refreshing to find such a misunderstanding in an IEEE standard.

Do not let it discourage you from applying the excellent advice of the rest of IEEE 830-1998, ; but when you write a program, do make sure — whether or not the requirements specify this property explicitly — that all its loops terminate.

Reference and notes

[1] IEEE Computer Society: IEEE Recommended Practice for Software Requirements SpeciÞcations, IEEE Standard 830-1998, revised 1998; available here (with subscription).

[2] The property [E] is actually more difficult to test, even non-exhaustively, than the authors acknowledge, if only because it is a probabilistic requirement, which can only be tested after one has defined appropriate probabilistic hypotheses.

[3] In requesting that all programs must terminate we must of course take note of the special case of systems that are non-terminating by design, such as most embedded systems. Such systems, however, are still made out of components representing individual steps that must terminate. The operating system on your smartphone may need to run forever (or until the next reboot), but the processing of an incoming text message is still, like a traditional program, required to terminate in finite time.

 

VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 10.0/10 (11 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: +6 (from 6 votes)

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.

 

References

[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.

VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 9.3/10 (4 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: +1 (from 3 votes)

Towards a Calculus of Object Programs

I posted here a draft of a new article, Towards a Calculus of Object Programs.

Here is the abstract:

Verifying properties of object-oriented software requires a method for handling references in a simple and intuitive way, closely related to how O-O programmers reason about their programs. The method presented here, a Calculus of Object Programs, combines four components: compositional logic, a framework for describing program semantics and proving program properties; negative variables to address the specifics of O-O programming, in particular qualified calls; the alias calculus, which determines whether reference expressions can ever have the same value; and the calculus of object structures, a specification technique for the structures that arise during the execution of an object-oriented program.
The article illustrates the Calculus by proving the standard algorithm for reversing a linked list.

VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 10.0/10 (4 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: +2 (from 2 votes)

If I’m not pure, at least my functions are

..

If I’m not pure, at least my jewels are [1].

..

We often need to be reassured that a routine, usually a function, is “pure”, meaning that it does not change the state of the computation. For example, a function used in a contract element (precondition, postcondition, class invariant, loop invariant) should be purely descriptive, since it is a specification element; evaluating it, typically for testing and debugging, should not create a change of behavior — a “Heisenberg effect” — in the very computation that it is intended to assess. Another application is in a concurrency context, particularly in SCOOP (see earlier posts and forthcoming ones): if one or more functions are pure, several of their executions can run  concurrently on the same object.

The notion of purity admits variants. The usual notion is what  [2] calls weak purity, which precludes changes to previously existing objects but allow creating new objects. In the EiffelBase library we also encounter routines that have another form of purity, which we may call “relative” purity: they can leave the same state on exit as they found on entry, but in-between they might change the state.  For the rest of this discussion we will rely on the standard notion of weak purity: no changes permitted on existing objects.

It is often suggested that the programming language should support specifying that a routine is pure; many people have indeed proposed the addition of a keyword such as pure to Eiffel. One of the reasons this is not — in my opinion — such a great idea is that purity is just a special case of the more general problem of framing: specifying and verifying what a routine does not change. If we can specify an arbitrary frame property, then we can, as a special case covered by the general mechanism, specify that a routine changes nothing.

To see why framing is so important, consider a class ACCOUNT with a routine deposit that has the postcondition

balance = old balance + sum………..— Where sum is the argument of deposit

Framing here means stating that nothing else than balance changes; for example the account’s owner and its number should remain the same. It is not practical to write all individual postcondition clauses such as

owner= old owner
number=
old number

and so on. But we do need to specify these properties and enforce them, if only to avoid that a descendant class (maybe MAFIA_ACCOUNT) distort the rules defined by the original.

One technique is to add a so-called “modifies clause”, introduced by verification tools such as ESC-Java [3] and JML [4]. Modifies clauses raise some theoretical issues; in particular, the list of modified expressions is often infinite, so we must restrict ourselves to an abstract-data-type view where we characterize a class by commands and queries and the modifies clause only involves queries of the class. Many people find this hard to accept at first, since anything that is not talked about can change, but it is the right approach. A modifies clause of sorts, included in the postcondition, appeared in an earlier iteration of the Eiffel specification, with the keyword only (which is indeed preferable to modifies, which in the Eiffel style favoring grammatically simple keywords would be modify, since what we want to express is not that the routine must change anything at all  but that it may only change certain specified results!). The convention worked well with inheritance, since it included the rule that a clause such as only balance, in class  ACCOUNT, prescribes that the routine may not, in its modifies version as well as in any version redefined in descendants, change any other query known at the level of ACCOUNT; but a descendant version may change, subject to its own ACCOUNT clauses, any new query introduced by a descendant.

To declare a routine as pure, it would suffice to use an empty only clause (not very elegant syntactically — “only” what? — but one can get used to it).

This construct has been discarded, as it places too heavy a burden on the programmer-specifier. Here the key observation resulted from a non-scientific but pretty extensive survey I made of all the JML code I could get my hands on. I found that every time a query appeared in a modifies clause it was also listed in the postcondition! On reflection, this seems reasonable: if you are serious about specification, as anyone bothering to write such a clause surely is, you will not just express that something changes and stop there; you will write something about how it may change. Not necessarily the exact result, as in

my_query = precise_final_value

but at least some property of that result, as in

some_property (my_query)

This observation has, however, an inescapable consequence for language design: modifies or only clauses should be inferred by the compiler from the postcondition, not imposed on the programmer as an extra burden. The convention, which we may call the Implicit Framing Rule, is simple:

A routine may change the value of a query only if the query is specified in the routine’s postcondition

(or, if you like double negation, “no routine may change the value of a query other than those specified in its postcondition”). Here we say that a feature is “specified” in a postcondition if it appears there outside of the scope of an old expression. (Clearly, an occurrence such as old balance does not imply that balance can be modified, hence this restriction to occurrences outside of an old.)

With this convention the only clause becomes implicit: it would simply list all the queries specified in the postcondition, so there is no need for the programmer to write it. For the rare case of wanting to specify that a query q may change, but not wanting to specify how, it is easy to provide a library function, say involved, that always return true and can be used in postconditions, as in involved (q).

The convention is of course not just a matter of programming methodology but, in an IDE supporting verification, such as the EVE “Verification As a Matter Of Course” environment which we are building for Eiffel [5], the compiler will enforce the definition above — no change permitted to anything not specified in the postcondition — and produce an error in case of a violation. This also means that we can easily specify that a routine is pure: it must simply not specify any query in its postcondition. It may still list it in an old clause, as happens often in practice, e.g.

Result = old balance – Minimum_balance………..— In the postcondition of a function available_funds

Note the need to use old here. Apart from this addition of old to some postconditions, a considerable advantage of the convention is that most existing code using pure functions will be suitable to the new purity enforcement without any need to provide new annotations.

I believe that this is the only sustainable convention. It does not, of course, solve the frame problem by itself (for attempts in this direction see [6, 7]), but it is a necessary condition for a solution that is simple, easily taught, fairly easily implemented, and effective. It goes well with model-based specifications [8, 9], which I believe are the technique of most promise for usable  specifications of object-oriented software. And it provides a straightforward, no-frills way to enforce purity where prescribed by the Command-Query Separation principle [10, 11]: if I’m not pure, at least my functions must be.

References

[1] From the lyrics of the aria Glitter and Be Gay in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, text by Lillian Hellman and others. Youtube offers several performances, including  by Diana Damrau (here) and Natalie Dessay (here) . For the text see e.g. here.

[2] Adam Darvas and Peter Müller: Reasoning About Method Calls in Interface Specifications, in Journal of Object Technology, Volume 5, no. 5, jUNE 2006, pages 59-85, doi:10.5381/jot.2006.5.5.a3, available here.

[3] C. Flanagan, K.R.M. Leino, M. Lillibridge, G. Nelson, J. B. Saxe and R. Stata: Extended static checking for Java, in PLDI 2002 (Programming Language Design and Implementation), pages 234–245, 2002.

[4] Gary Leavens et al.: Java Modeling Language, see references here.

[5] Julian Tschannen, Carlo A. Furia, Martin Nordio, and Bertrand Meyer: Verifying Eiffel Programs with Boogie, to appear in Boogie 2011, First International Workshop on Intermediate Verification Languages, Wroclaw, August 2011. See documentation about the EVE project on the project page.

[6] Ioannis Kassios: Dynamic Frames: Support for Framing, Dependencies and Sharing Without Restrictions, in Formal Methods 2006, eds. J. Misra, T. Nipkow and E. Sekerinski, Lecture Notes in Computer Science 4085, Springer Verlag, 2006, pages 268-283.

[7] Bernd Schoeller: Making Classes Provable through Contracts, Models and Frames, PhD thesis, ETH Zurich, 2007, available here

[8] 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.

[9] 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.

[10] Bertrand Meyer: Object-Oriented Software Construction, first (1988) and second (1997) editions, Prentice Hall.

[11] Bertrand Meyer: Touch of Class: An Introduction to Programming Well, Using Objects and Contracts, Springer Verlag, 2009.

VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 10.0/10 (7 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: +3 (from 5 votes)

Agile methods: the good, the bad and the ugly

It was a bit imprudent last Monday to announce the continuation of the SCOOP discussion for this week; with the TOOLS conference happening now, with many satellite events such as the Eiffel Design Feast of the past week-end and today’s “New Eiffel Technology Community” workshop, there is not enough time for a full article. Next week might also be problematic. The SCOOP series will resume, but in the meantime I will report on other matters.

As something that can be conveniently typed in while sitting in the back of the TOOLS room during fascinating presentations, here is a bit of publicity for the next round of one-day seminars for industry — “Compact Course” is the official terminology — that I will be teaching at ETH in Zurich next November (one in October), some of them with colleagues. It’s the most extensive session that we have ever done; you can see the full programs and registration information here.

  • Software Engineering for Outsourced and Distributed Development, 27 October 2011
    Taught with Peter Kolb and Martin Nordio
  • Requirements Engineering, 17 November
  • Software Testing and Verification: state of the art, 18 November
    With Carlo Furia and Sebastian Nanz
  • Agile Methods: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 23 November
  • Concepts and Constructs of Concurrent Computation, 24 November
    With Sebastian Nanz
  • Design by Contract, 25 November

The agile methods course is new; its summary reads almost like a little blog article, so here it is.

Agile methods: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Agile methods are wonderful. They’ll give you software in no time at all, turn your customers and users into friends, catch bugs before they catch you, change the world, and boost your love life. Do you believe these claims (even excluding the last two)? It’s really difficult to form an informed opinion, since most of the presentations of eXtreme Programming and other agile practices are intended to promote them (and the consultants to whom they provide a living), not to deliver an objective assessment.

If you are looking for a guru-style initiation to the agile religion, this is not the course for you. What it does is to describe in detail the corpus of techniques covered by the “agile” umbrella (so that you can apply them effectively to your developments), and assess their contribution to software engineering. It is neither “for” nor “against” agile methods but fundamentally descriptive, pedagogical, objective and practical. The truth is that agile methods include some demonstrably good ideas along with some whose benefits are at best dubious. In addition (and this should not be a surprise) they cannot make the fundamental laws of software engineering go away.

Agile methods have now been around for more than a decade, during which many research teams, applying proven methods of experimental science, have performed credible empirical studies of how well the methods really work and how they compare to more traditional software engineering practices. This important body of research results, although not widely known, is critical to managers and developers in industry for deciding whether and how to use agile development. The course surveys these results, emphasizing the ones most directly relevant to practitioners.

A short discussion session will enable participants with experience in agile methods to share their results.

Taking this course will give you a strong understanding of agile development, and a clear view of when, where and how to apply them.

Schedule

Morning session: A presentation of agile methods

  • eXtreme Programming, pair programming, Scrum, Test-Driven Development, continuous integration, refactoring, stakeholder involvement, feature-driven development etc.
  • The agile lifecycle.
  • Variants: lean programming etc.

Afternoon session (I): Assessment of agile methods

  • The empirical software engineering literature: review of available studies. Assessment of their value. Principles of empirical software engineering.
  • Agile methods under the scrutiny of empirical research: what helps, what harms, and what has no effect? How do agile methods fare against traditional techniques?
  • Examples: pair programming versus code reviews; tests versus specifications; iterative development versus “Big Upfront Everything”.

Afternoon session (II): Discussion and conclusion

This final part of the course will present, after a discussion session involving participants with experience in agile methods, a summary of the contribution of agile methods to software engineering.

It will conclude with advice for organizations involved in software development and interested in applying agile methods in their own environment.

Target groups

CIOs; software project leaders; software developers; software testers and QA engineers.

VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 8.8/10 (4 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: +3 (from 5 votes)

Publish no loop without its invariant

 

There may be no more blatant example of  the disconnect between the software engineering community and the practice of programming than the lack of widespread recognition for the fundamental role of loop invariants. 

Let’s recall the basics, as they are taught in the fourth week or so of the ETH introductory programming course [1], from the very moment the course introduces loops. A loop is a mechanism to compute a result by successive approximations. To describe the current approximation, there is a loop invariant. The invariant must be:

  1. Weak enough that we can easily ensure it on a subset, possibly trivial, of our data set. (“Easily” means than this task is substantially easier than the full problem we are trying to solve.)
  2. Versatile enough that if it holds on some subset of the data we can easily (in the same sense) make it hold on a larger subset — even if only slightly larger.
  3. Strong enough that, when it covers the entire data, it yields the result we seek.

As a simple example, assume we seek the maximum of an array a of numbers, indexed from 1. The invariant states that Result is the maximum of the array slice from 1 to i. Indeed:

  1. We can trivially obtain the invariant by setting Result to be a [1]. (It is then the maximum of the slice a [1..1].)
  2. If the invariant holds, we can extend it to a slightly larger slice — larger by just one element — by increasing i by 1 and updating Result to be the greater of the previous Result and the element a [i] (for the new  i).
  3. When the slice covers the entire array — that is, i = n — the invariant tells us that Result is the maximum of the slice a [1..n], giving us the result we seek.

You cannot understand the corresponding program text

    from
        i := 1; Result := a [1]
    until i = n loop
        i := i + 1
        if Result < a [i] then Result := a [i] end
    end

without understanding the loop invariant. That is true even of people who have never heard the term: they will somehow form a mental image of the intermediate situation that justifies the algorithm. With the formal notion, the reasoning becomes precise and checkable. The difference is the same as between a builder who has no notion of theory, and one who has learned the laws of mechanics and construction engineering.

As another example, take Levenshtein distance (also known as edit distance). It is the shortest sequence of operations (insert, delete or replace a character) that will transform a string into another. The algorithm (a form of dynamic programming) fills in a matrix top to bottom and left to right, each entry being one plus the maximum of the three neighboring ones to the top and left, except if the corresponding characters in the strings are the same, in which case it keeps the top-left neighbor’s value. The basic operation in the loop body reads

      if source [i] = target [j] then
           dist [i, j] := dist [i -1, j -1]
      else
           dist [i, j] := min (dist [i, j-1], dist [i-1, j-1], dist [i-1, j]) + 1
      end

You can run this and see it work, filling the array cell after cell, then delivering the result at (dist [M, N] (the bottom-right entry, M and i being the lengths of the source and target strings. Or just watch the animation on page 60 of [2]. It works, but why it works remains a total mystery until someone tells you the invariant:

Every value of dist filled so far is the minimum distance from the initial substrings of the source, containing characters at position 1 to p, to the initial substring of the target, positions 1 to q.

This is the rationale for the above code: we want to compute the next value, at position [i, j]; if the corresponding characters in the source and target are the same, no operation is needed to extend the result we had in the top-left neighbor (position [i-1, j-1]); if not, the best we can do is the minimum we can get by extending the results obtained for our three neighbors: through the insertion of source [i] if the minimum comes from the neighbor to the left, [i-1, j]; through the deletion of target [j] if it comes from the neighbor above; or through a replacement if from the top-left neighbor.

With this explanation, a mysterious, almost hermetic algorithm instantly becomes crystal-clear. 

Yet another example is in-place linked list reversal. The body of the loop is a pointer ballet:

temp := previous
previous
:= next
next
:= next.right
previous.put_right
(temp)

with proper initialization (set next to the value of first and previous to Void) and finalization (set first to the value of previous). This is not the only possible implementation, but all variants of the algorithm use a very similar scheme.

The code looks again pretty abstruse, and hard to get right if you do not remember it exactly. As in the other examples, the only way to understand it is to see the invariant, describing the intermediate assumption after a typical loop iteration. If the original situation was this:

List reversal: initial state

List reversal: initial state

then after a few iterations the algorithm yields this intermediate situation: 

List reversal: intermediate state

List reversal: intermediate state

 The figure illustrates the invariant:

Starting from previous and repeatedly following right links yields the elements of some initial part of the list, but in the reverse of their original order; starting from next and following right links yields the remaining elements, in their original order. 

Then it is clear what the loop body with its pointer ballet is about: it moves by one position to the right the boundary between the two parts, making sure that the invariant holds again in the new state, with one more element in the first (yellow) part and one fewer in the second (pink) part. At the end the second part will be empty and the first part will encompass all elements, so that (after resetting first to the value of previous) we get the desired result.

This example is particularly interesting because list reversal is a standard interview questions for programmers seeking a job; as a result, dozens of  pages around the Web helpfully present algorithms for the benefit of job candidates. I ran a search  on “List reversal algorithm” [3], which yields many such pages. It is astounding to see that from the first fifteen hits or so, which include pages from programming courses at both Stanford and MIT, not a single one mentions invariants, or (even without using the word) gives the above explanation. The situation is all the more bizarre that many of these pages — read them for yourself! — go into intricate details about variants of the pointer manipulations. There are essentially no correctness arguments.

If you go a bit further down the search results, you will find some papers that do reference invariants, but here is the catch: rather than programming or algorithms papers, they are papers about software verification, such as one by Richard Bornat which uses a low-level (C) version of the example to illustrate separation logic [4]. These are good papers but they are completely distinct from those directed at ordinary programmers, who simply wish to learn a basic algorithm, understand it in depth, and remember it on the day of the interview and beyond.

This chasm is wrong. Software verification techniques are not just good for the small phalanx of experts interested in formal proofs. The basic ideas have potential applications to the daily business of programming, as the practice of Eiffel has shown (this is the concept of  “Verification As a Matter Of Course” briefly discussed in an earlier post [5]). Absurdly, the majority of programmers do not know them.

It’s not that they cannot do their job: somehow they eke out good enough results, most of the time. After all, the European cathedrals of the middle ages were built without the benefit of sophisticated mathematical models, and they still stand. But today we would not hire a construction engineer who had not studied the appropriate mathematical techniques. Why should we make things different for software engineering, and deprive practitioners from the benefits of solid, well-accepted theory?  

As a modest first step, there is no excuse, ever, for publishing a loop without the basic evidence of its adequacy: the loop invariant.

References

[1] Bertrand Meyer: Touch of Class: Learning to Program Well, Using Objects and Contracts, Springer, 2009. See course page (English version) here.

[2] Course slides on control structures,  here in PowerPoint (or here in PDF, without the animation); see example starting on page 51, particularly the animation on page 54. More recent version in German here (and in PDF here), animation on page 60.

[3] For balance I ran the search using Qrobe, which combines results from Ask, Bing and Google.

[4] Richard Bornat, Proving Pointer Programs in Hoare Logic, in  MPC ’00, 5th International Conference on Mathematics of Program Construction, 2000, available here.

[5] Bertrand Meyer, Verification as a Matter of Course, a post on this blog.

VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 10.0/10 (5 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: +4 (from 4 votes)

Specifying user interfaces

Many blogs including this one rely on the WordPress software. In previous states of the present page you may have noticed a small WordPress bug, which I find interesting.

“Tags” are a nifty WordPress feature. When you post a message, you can specify one or more informative “tags”. The tags of all messages appear in the right sidebar, each with a smaller or bigger font size depending on the number of messages that specified it. You can click such a tag in the sidebar and get, on the left, a page containing all the associated messages.

Now assume that many posts use a particular tag; in our example it is “Design by Contract”, not unexpected for this blog. Assume further that the tag name is long. It is indeed in this case: 18 characters. As a side note, no problem would arise if I used normal spaces in the name, which would then appear on two or three lines; precisely to avoid this  I use HTML “non-breaking spaces”. This is probably not in the WordPress spirit, but any other long tag without spaces would create the same problem. That problem is a garbled display:

dbc_overflows

The long tag overflows the bluish browser area assigned to tags, producing an ugly effect. This behavior is hard to defend: either the tag should have been rejected as too long when the poster specified it or it should fit in its zone, whether by truncation or by applying a smaller font.

I quickly found a workaround, not nice but good enough: make sure that some short tag  (such as “Hoare”) appears much more often than the trouble-making tag. Since font size indicates the relative frequency of tags, the long one will be scaled down to a smaller font which fits.

Minor as it is, this WordPress glitch raises some general questions. First, is it really a bug? Assume, by a wild stretch of imagination, that a jury had to resolve this question; it could easily find an expert to answer positively, by stating that the behavior does not satisfy reasonable user expectations, and another who notes that it is not buggy behavior since it does not appear to violate any expressly stated property of the specification. (At least I did not find in the WordPress documentation any mention of either the display size of tags or a limit on tag length; if I missed it please indicate the reference.)

Is it a serious matter? Not in this particular example; uncomely Web display does not kill.   But the distinction between “small matter of esthetics” and software fault can be tenuous. We may note in particular that the possibility for large data to overflow its assigned area is a fundamental source of security risks; and even pure user interface issues can become life-threatening in the case of critical applications such as air-traffic control.

Our second putative expert is right, however: no behavior is buggy unless it contradicts a specification. Where will the spec be in such an example? There are three possibilities, each with its limitations.

The first solution is to expect that in a carefully developed system every such property will have to be specified. This is conceivable, but hard, and the question arises of how to make sure nothing has been forgotten. Past  some threshold of criticality and effort, the only specifications that count are formal; there is not that much literature on specifying user interfaces formally, since much of the work on formal specifications has understandably concentrated on issues thought to be more critical.

Because of the tediousness of specifying such general properties again and again for each case, it might be better  — this is the second solution — to specify them globally, for an entire system, or for the user interfaces of an entire class of systems. Like any serious effort at specification, if it is worth doing, it is worth doing formally.

In either of these approaches the question remains of how we know we have specified everything of interest. This question, specification completeness, is not as hopeless as most people think; I plan to write an entry about it sometime (hint:  bing for “guttag horning”). Still, it is hard to be sure you did not miss anything relevant. Remember this the next time formal methods advocates — who should know better — tell you that with their techniques there “no longer is a need to test”, or when you read about the latest OS kernel that is “guaranteed correct and secure”. However important formal methods and proofs are, they can only guarantee satisfaction of the properties that the specifier has considered and stated. To paraphrase someone [1], I would venture that

Proofs can only show the absence of envisaged bugs, never rule out the presence of unimagined ones.

This is one of the reasons why tests will always, regardless of the progress of proofs, remain an indispensable part of the software development landscape [2]. Whatever you have specified and proved, you will still want to run the system (or, for certain classes of embedded software, some simulation of it) and see the results for yourself.

What then if we do not explicitly specify the desired property (as we did in the two approaches considered so far) but testing or actual operation still reveals some behavior that is clearly unsatisfactory? On what basis do we complain to the software’s producer? A solution here, the third in our list, might be to rely on generally accepted standards of professional development. This is common in other kinds of engineering: if you commission someone to build you a house, the contract may not explicitly state that the roof should not fall on your head while you are asleep; when this happens, you will still sue and accuse the builder of malpractice. Such remedies can work for software too, but the rules are murkier because we have not accepted, or even just codified, a set of general professional practices that would cover such details as “no display of information should overflow its assigned area”.

Until then I will remember to use one short tag a lot.

References

[1] Edsger W. Dijksra, Notes on Structured Programming, in Dahl, Dijkstra, Hoare, Structured Programming, Academic Press, 1972.

[2]  See Tests And Proofs (TAP) conference series, since 2007. The next conference, program-chaired by Angelo Gargantini and Gordon Fraser, will take place in the week of the TOOLS Federated Conferences in Málaga, Spain, in the week of June 28, 2010.

VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 5.8/10 (4 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: +1 (from 3 votes)

“Touch of Class” published

My textbook Touch of Class: An Introduction to Programming Well Using Objects and Contracts [1] is now available from Springer Verlag [2]. I have been told of many bookstores in Europe that have it by now; for example Amazon Germany [3] offers immediate delivery. Amazon US still lists the book as not yet published [4], but I think this will be corrected very soon.

touch_of_class

The book results from six years of teaching introductory programming at ETH Zurich. It is richly illustrated in full color (not only with technical illustrations but with numerous photographs of people and artefacts). It is pretty big, but designed so that a typical one-semester introductory course can cover most of the material.

Many topics are addressed (see table of contents below), including quite a few that are seldom seen at the introductory level. Some examples, listed here in random order: a fairly extensive introduction to software engineering including things like requirements engineering (not usually mentioned in programming courses, with results for everyone to see!) and CMMI, a detailed discussion of how to implement recursion, polymorphism and dynamic binding and their role for software architecture, multiple inheritance, lambda calculus (at an introductory level of course), a detailed analysis of the Observer and Visitor patterns, event-driven programming, the lure and dangers of references and aliasing, topological sort as an example of both algorithm and API design, high-level function closures, software tools, properties of computer hardware relevant for programmers, undecidability etc.

The progression uses an object-oriented approach throughout; the examples are in Eiffel, and four appendices present the details of Java, C#, C++ and C. Concepts of Design by Contract and rigorous development are central to the approach; for example, loops are presented as a technique for computing a result by successive approximation, with a central role for the concept of loop invariant. This is not a “formal methods” book in the sense of inflicting on the students a heavy mathematical apparatus, but it uses preconditions, postconditions and invariants throughout to alert them to the importance of reasoning rigorously about programs. The discussion introduces many principles of sound design, in line with the book’s subtitle, “Learning to Program Well”.

The general approach is “Outside-In” (also known as “Inverted Curriculum” and described at some length in some of my articles, see e.g. [5]): students have, right from the start, the possibility of working with real software, a large (150,000-line) library that has been designed specifically for that purpose. Called Traffic, this library simulates traffic in a city; it is graphical and of good enough visual quality to be attractive to today’s “Wii generation” students, something that traditional beginners’ exercises, like computing the 7-th Fibonacci number, cannot do (although we have these too as well). Using the Traffic software through its API, students can right from the first couple of weeks produce powerful applications, without understanding the internals of the library. But they do not stop there: since the whole thing is available in open source, students learn little by little how the software is made internally. Hence the name “Outside-In”: understand the interface first, then dig into the internals. Two advantages of the approach are particularly worth noting:

  • It emphasizes the value of abstraction, and particular contracts, not by preaching but by showing to students that abstraction helps them master a large body of professional-level software, doing things that would otherwise be unthinkable at an introductory level.
  • It addresses what is probably today the biggest obstacle to teaching introductory programming: the wide diversity of initial student backgrounds. The risk with traditional approaches is either to fly too high and lose the novices, or stay too low and bore those who already have programming experience. With the Outside-In method the novices can follow the exact path charted from them, from external API to internal implementation; those who already know something about programming can move ahead of the lectures and start digging into the code by themselves for information and inspiration.

(We have pretty amazing data on students’ prior programming knowledge, as  we have been surveying students for the past six years, initially at ETH and more recently at the University of York in England thanks to our colleague Manuel Oriol; some day I will post a blog entry about this specific topic.)

The book has been field-tested in its successive drafts since 2003 at ETH, for the Introduction to Programming course (which starts again in a few weeks, for the first time with the benefit of the full text in printed form). Our material, such as a full set of slides, plus exercises, video recordings of the lectures etc. is available to any instructor selecting the text. I must say that Springer did an outstanding job with the quality of the printing and I hope that instructors, students, and even some practitioners already in industry will like both form and content.

Table of contents

Front matter: Community resource, Dedication (to Tony Hoare and Niklaus Wirth), Prefaces, Student_preface, Instructor_preface, Note to instructors: what to cover?, Contents

PART I: Basics
1 The industry of pure ideas
2 Dealing with objects
3 Program structure basics
4 The interface of a class
5 Just Enough Logic
6 Creating objects and executing systems
7 Control structures
8 Routines, functional abstraction and information hiding
9 Variables, assignment and references
PART II: How things work
10 Just enough hardware
11 Describing syntax
12 Programming languages and tools
PART III: Algorithms and data structures
13 Fundamental data structures, genericity, and algorithm complexity
14 Recursion and trees
15 Devising and engineering an algorithm: Topological Sort
PART IV: Object-Oriented Techniques
16 Inheritance
17 Operations as objects: agents and lambda calculus
18 Event-driven design
PART V: Towards software engineering
19 Introduction to software engineering
PART VI: Appendices
A An introduction to Java (from material by Marco Piccioni)
B An introduction to C# (from material by Benjamin Morandi)
C An introduction to C++ (from material by Nadia Polikarpova)
D From C++ to C
E Using the EiffelStudio environment
Picture credits
Index

References

[1] Bertrand Meyer, Touch of Class: An Introduction to Programming Well Using Objects and Contracts, Springer Verlag, 2009, 876+lxiv pages, Hardcover, ISBN: 978-3-540-92144-8.

[2] Publisher page for [1]: see  here. List price: $79.95. (The page says “Ships in 3 to 4 weeks” but I think this is incorrect as the book is available; I’ll try to get the mention corrected.)

[3] Amazon.de page: see here. List price: EUR 53.45 (with offers starting at EUR 41.67).

[4] Amazon.com page: see here. List price: $63.96.

[5] Michela Pedroni and Bertrand Meyer: The Inverted Curriculum in Practice, in Proceedings of SIGCSE 2006, ACM, Houston (Texas), 1-5 March 2006, pages 481-485; available online.

VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 7.4/10 (8 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)