Archive for the ‘Software process’ Category.

Domain Theory: the forgotten step in program verification

 

Program verification is making considerable progress but is hampered by a lack of abstraction in specifications. A crucial step is, almost always, absent from the process; this omission is the principal obstacle to making verification a standard component of everyday software development.

1. Steps in software verification

In the first few minutes of any introduction to program verification, you will be told that the task requires two artifacts: a program, and a specification. The program describes what executions will do; the specification, what they are supposed to do. To verify software is to ascertain that the program matches the specification: that it does is what it should.

The consequence usually drawn is that verification consists of three steps: write a specification, write a program, prove that the program satisfies the specification. The practical process is of course messier, if only because the first two steps may occur in the reverse order and, more generally, all three steps are often intertwined: the specification and the program influence each other, in particular through the introduction of “verification conditions” into the program; and initial proof attempts will often lead to changes in both the specification and the program. But by and large these are the three accepted steps.

Such a description misses a fourth step, a prerequisite to specification that is essential to a scalable verification process: Domain Theory. Any program addresses a specific domain of discourse, be it the domain of network access and communication for a mobile phone system, the domain of air travel for a flight control system, of companies and shares for a stock exchange system and so on. Even simple programs with a limited scope, such as the computation of the maximum of an array, use a specific domain beyond elementary mathematics. In this example, it is the domain of arrays, with their specific properties: an array has a range, a minimum and maximum indexes in that range, an associated sequence of values; we may define a slice a [i..j], ask for the value associated with a given index, replace an element at a given index and so on. The Domain Theory provides a formal model for any such domain, with the appropriate mathematical operations and their properties. In the example the operations are the ones just mentioned, and the properties will include the axiom that if we replace an element at a certain index i with a value v then access the element at an index j, the value we get is v if i = j, and otherwise the earlier value at j.

2. The role of a Domain Theory

The task of devising a Domain Theory is to describe such a domain of reference, in the spirit of abstract data types: by listing the applicable operations and their properties. If we do not treat this task as a separate step, we end up with the kind of specification that works for toy examples but quickly becomes unmanageable for real-life applications. Most of the verification literature, unfortunately, relies on such specifications. They lack abstraction since they keep using the lowest-level mathematical objects and constructs, such as numbers and quantified expressions. They are to specification what assembly language is to modern programming.

Dines Bjørner has for a long time advocated a closely related idea, domain engineering; see for example his book in progress [1]. Unfortunately, he does not take advantage of modularization through abstract data types; the book is an example of always-back-to-the-basics specification, resorting time and again to fully explicit specifications based on a small number of mathematical primitives, and as a consequence making formal specification look difficult.

3. Maximum computed from both ends

As a simple example of modeling through an abstract theory consider an algorithm for computing the maximum of an array. We could use the standard technique that goes through the array one-way, but for variety let us take the algorithm that works from both ends, moving two integer cursors towards each other until they meet.  (This example was used in a verification competition at a recent conference, I forgot which one.) The code looks like this:

Two-way maximum

The specification, expressed by the postcondition (ensure) should state that Result is the maximum of the array; the loop invariant will be closely related to it. How do we express these properties? The obvious way is not the right way. It states the postcondition as something like

k: Z | (ka.lowerka.upper) ⇒ a [k] ≤ Result

k: Z | ka.lowerka.upper a [k] = Result

In words, Result is at least as large as every element of the array, and is equal to at least one of the elements of the array. The invariant can also be expressed in this style (try it).

The preceding specification expresses the desired property, but it is of an outrageously lower level than called for. The notion of maximum is a general one for arrays over an ordered type. It can be computed through many different algorithms in addition to the one shown above, and exists independently of these algorithms. The detailed, assembly-language-like definition of its properties should not have to be repeated in every case. It should be part of the Domain Theory for the underlying notion, arrays.

4. A specification at the right level of abstraction

In a Domain Theory for arrays of elements from an ordered set, one of the principal operations is maximum, satisfying the above properties. The definition of maximum through these properties belongs at the Domain Theory level. The Domain Theory should include that definition, independent of any particular computational technique such as two_way_max. Then the routine’s postcondition, relying on this notion from the Domain Theory, becomes simply

Result = a.maximum

The application of this approach to the loop invariant is particularly interesting. If you tried to write it at the lowest level, as suggested above, you should have produced something like this:

a.lowerija.upper

k: Z | kikj ∧ (∀ l: Z | l a.lowerl a.upper a [l] ≤ a [k])

The first clause is appropriate but the rest is horrible! With its nested quantified expressions it gives an impression of great complexity for a property that is in fact straightforward, simple enough in fact to be explained to a 10-year-old: the maximum of the entire array can be found between indexes i and j. In other words, it is also the maximum of the array slice going from i to j. The Domain Theory will define the notion of slice and enable us to express the invariant as just

a.lowerij a.upper — This bounding clause remains

a.maximum = (a [i..j ]).maximum

(where we will write the slice a [i..j ] as a.slice (i, j ) if we do not have mechanisms for defining special syntax). To verify the routine becomes trivial: on loop exit the invariant still holds and i = j, so the maximum of the entire array is given by the maximum of the single-element slice a [i..i ], which is the value of its single element a [i ]. This last property — the maximum of a single-element array is its single value — is independent of the verification of any particular program and should be proved as a little theorem of the Domain Theory for arrays.

The comparison between the two versions is striking: without Domain Theory, we are back to the most tedious mathematical manipulations again and again; simple, clear properties look complicated and obscure. This just for a small example on basic data structures; now think what it will be for a complex application domain. Without a first step of formal modeling to develop a Domain Theory, no realistic specification and verification process is realistic.

Although the idea is illustrated here through examples of individual routines, the construction of a Domain Theory should usually occur, in an object-oriented development process, at the level of a class: the embodiment of an abstract data type, which is at the appropriate level of granularity. The theory applies to objects of a given type, and hence will be used for the verification of all operations of that type. This observation justifies the effort of devising a Domain Theory, since it will benefit a whole set of software elements.

5. Components of a Domain Theory

The Domain Theory should include the three ingredients illustrated in the example:

  • Operations, modeled as mathematical functions (no side effects of course, we are in the world of specification).
  • Axioms characterizing the defining properties of these operations.
  • Theorems, characterizing other important properties.

This approach is of course nothing else than abstract data types (the same thing, although few people realize it, as object-oriented analysis). Even though ADTs are a widely popularized notion, supported for example by tools such as CafeOBJ [2] and Maude [3], it is generally not taken to its full conclusions; in particular there is too often a tendency to define every new ADT from scratch, rather than building up libraries of reusable high-level mathematical components in the O-O spirit of reuse.

6. Results, not just definitions

In devising a Domain Theory with the three kinds of ingredient listed above, we should not forget the last one, the theorems! The most depressing characteristic of much of the work on formal specification is that it is long on definitions and short on results, while good mathematics is supposed to be the reverse. I think people who have seriously looked at formal methods and do not adopt them are turned off not so much by the need to use mathematics but by the impression they get little value for it.

That is why Eiffel contracts do get adopted: even if it’s just for testing and debugging, people see immediate returns. It suffices for a programmer to have caught one bug as the violation of a simple postcondition to be convinced for life and lose any initial math-phobia.

7. Quantifiers are evil

As we go beyond simple contract properties — this argument must be positive, this reference will not be void — the math needs to be at the same level of abstraction to which, as modern programmers, we are accustomed. For example, one should always be wary of program specifications relying directly on quantified expressions, as in the low-level variants of the postcondition and loop invariant of the two_way_max routine.

This is not just a matter of taste, as in the choice in logic [4] between lambda expressions (more low-level but also more immediately understandable) and combinators (more abstract but, for many, more abstruse). We are talking here about the fundamental software engineering problem of scalability; more generally, of the understandability, extendibility and reusability of programs, and the same criteria for their specification and verification. Quantifiers are of course needed to express fundamental properties of a structure but in general should not directly appear in program assertions: as the example illustrated, their level of abstraction is lower than the level of discourse of a modern object-oriented program. If the rule — Quantifiers Considered Harmful — is not absolute, it must be pretty close.

Quantified expressions, “All elements of this structure possess this property” and “Some element of this structure possesses this property” — belong in the description of the structure and not in the program. They should appear in the Domain Theory, not in the verification. If you want to express that a hash table search found an element of key K, you should not write

(Result = Void ∧ (∀ i: Z | i a.loweri a.upper a.item (i).key ≠ K))

(ResultVoid ∧ (∀ i: Z | i a.loweri a.upper a.item (i).key = K ∧ Result = a.item (i))

but

Result /= Void     (Result a.elements_of_key (K))

The quantified expressions will appear in the Domain Theory for the corresponding structure, in the definition of such domain properties as elements_of_key. Then the program’s specification — the contracts to be verified — can rely on concepts that make sense to the programmer; the verification will take advantage of theorems that have been proved independently since they belong to the Domain Theory and do not depend on individual programs.

8. Even the simplest examples…

Practical software verification requires Domain Theory even in the simplest cases, including those often used as purely academic examples. Perhaps the most common (and convenient) way to explain the notion of loop invariant is Euclid’s algorithm to compute the greatest common divisor (gcd) of two numbers (with a structure remarkably similar to that of two_way_max):
Euclid

I have expressed the postcondition using a concept from an assumed Domain Theory for the underlying problem: gcd, the mathematical function that yields the greatest common divisor of two integers. Many specifications I have seen go back to the basics, with something like this (using \\ for integer remainder):

a \\ Result = 0 b \\ Result = 0   ∀ i: N | (a \\ i = 0) ∧ (b \\ i = 0)  i Result

This is indeed the definition of what it means for Result to be the gcd of a and b (it divides a, it divides b, and is greater than any other integer that also has these two properties). But it makes no sense to include such a detailed mathematical property in the specification of a program element. It belongs in the domain theory, where it will serve as the definition of a function gcd, which we can then use directly in the specification of the program.

Note how the invariant makes the necessity of the Domain Theory approach even more clear: try to express it in the basic mathematical form, not using the function gcd, It can be done, but the result is typical of the high complexity to usefulness ratio of traditional formal specifications mentioned above. Instead, the invariant that I have included in the program text above says exactly what there is to say, clearly and concisely: at each iteration, the gcd of our two temporary values, i and j, is the result that we are seeking, the gcd of the original values a and b. On exit from the loop, when i and j are equal, their common value is that result.

It is also thanks to the Domain Theory modeling that the verification of the program — consisting of proving that the stated property is indeed invariant — will be so simple: as part of the theory, we should have the two little theorems

i > j > 0 gcd (i, j) = gcd (ij, j)
gcd
(i, i) = i

which immediately show the implementation to be correct.

Inside of any big, fat, messy, quantifier-ridden specification there is a simple, elegant and clear Domain-Theory-based specification desperately trying to get out. Find it and use it.

9. From Domain Theory to domain library

One of the reasons most people working on program verification have not used the division into levels of discourse described here, with a clear role for developing a Domain Theory, is that they lack the appropriate notational support. Mathematical notation is of course available, but we are talking about programs a general verification framework cannot resort to a new special notation for every new application domain.

This is one of the places where Eiffel provides a consistent solution, through its seamless approach to integrating programs and specifications in a single notation. Thanks to mechanisms such as deferred classes (classes that describe concepts through detailed specifications without committing to an implementation), Eiffel is as much for specification as for design and implementation; a Domain Theory can be expressed though a set of deferred Eiffel classes, which we may call a domain library. The classes in a domain library should not just be deferred, meaning devoid of implementation; they should in addition describe stateless operations only — queries, not commands — since they are modeling purely mathematical concepts.

An earlier article in this blog [5] outlined the context of our verification work: the EVE project (Eiffel Verification Environment), a practical approach to integrating software verification in the day-to-day practice of modern software development, with the slogan ““Verification As a Matter Of Course”. In this project we have applied the idea of Domain Theory by building a domain library covering fundamental concepts of set theory, including functions and relations. This is the Mathematical Model Library (MML) [6, 7], which we use to verify the new data structure library EiffelBase 2 using specifications at the appropriate level of abstraction.

MML is in fact useful for the specification of a wide variety of programs, since almost every application area can benefit from the general concepts of set, subset, relation and such. But to cover a specific application domain, say flight traffic control, MML will generally not suffice; you will need to devise a Domain Theory that mathematically models the target domain, and may express it in the form of a domain library written in the same general spirit as MML: all deferred, stateless, focused on high-level abstractions.

It is one of the attractions of Eiffel that you can express such a theory and library in the same notation as the programs that will use it — more precisely in a subset of that notation, since the specification classes do not need the imperative constructs of the language such as instructions and attributes. Then both the development process and the verification use a seamlessly integrated set of notations and techniques, and all use the same tools from a modern IDE, in our case EiffelStudio, for browsing, editing, working with graphical repreentation, metrics etc.

10. DSL libraries for specifications

A mechanism to express Domain Theories is to a general specification mechanism essentially like a Domain Specific Language (DSL) is to a general programming language: a specialization for a particular domain. Domain libraries make the approach practical by:

  • Embedding the specification language in the programming language.
  • Fundamentally relying on reuse, in the best spirit of object technology.

This approach is in line with the one I presented for handling DSLs in an earlier article of this blog [8] (thanks, by the way, for the many comments received, some of them posted here and some on Facebook and LinkedIn where the post triggered long discussions). It is usually a bad idea to invent a new language for a new application domain. A better solution is to rely on libraries, by taking advantage of the power of object-oriented mechanisms to model (in domain libraries) and implement (for DSLs) the defining features of such a domain, and to make the result widely reusable. The resulting libraries are purely descriptive in the case of a domain library expressing a Domain Theory, and directly usable by programs in the case of a library embodying a DSL, but the goal is the same.

11. A sound and necessary engineering practice

Many ideas superficially look similar to Domain Theory: domain engineering as mentioned above, “domain analysis” as widely discussed in the requirements literature, model-driven development, abstract data type specification… They all start from some of the same observations, but  Domain Theory as described in this article is something different: a systematic approach to modeling an arbitrary application domain mathematically, which:

  • Describes the concepts through applicable operations, axioms and (most importantly) theorems.
  • Expresses these elements in an applicative (side-effect free, i.e. equivalent to pure mathematics) subset of the programming language, for direct embedding in program specifications.
  • Relies on the class mechanism to structure the results.
  • Collects the specifications into specification libraries and promotes the reuse of specifications in the same way we promote software reuse.
  • Uses the combination of these techniques to ensure that program specifications are at a high level of abstraction, compatible with the programmers’ view of their software.
  • Promotes a clear and effective verification process.

The core idea is in line with standard engineering practices in disciplines other than software: to build a bridge, a car or a chip you need first to develop a sound model of the future system and its environment, using any useful models developed previously rather than always going back to elementary textbook mathematics.

It seems in fact easier to justify doing Domain Analysis than to justify not doing it. The power of expression and abstraction of our programs has grown by leaps and bounds; it’s time for our specifications to catch up.

References

[1] Dines Bjørner: From Domains to Requirements —The Triptych Approach to Software Engineering, “to be submitted to Springer”, available here.

[2] Kokichi Futatsugi and others: CafeObj page, here.

[3] José Meseguer and others: Maude publication page, here.

[4] J. Roger Hindley, J. P. Seldin: Introduction to Combinators and l-calculus, Cambridge University Press, 1986.

[5] Verification As a Matter Of Course, earlier article on this blog (March 2010), available here.

[6] 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, pages 48-70, available here.

[7] Nadia Polikarpova, Carlo A. Furia and Bertrand Meyer: Specifying Reusable Components, in VSTTE’10: Verified Software: Theories, Tools and Experiments, Edinburgh, August 2010, Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Springer-Verlag, available here.

[8] Never Design a Language, earlier article on this blog (January 2012), available here.

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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.

 

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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.)

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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.

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The Professor Smith syndrome: Part 2

As stated in the Quiz of a few days ago (“Part 1 ”), we consider the following hypothetical report in experimental software engineering ([1], [2]):

Professor Smith has developed a new programming technique, “Suspect-Oriented Programming” (SOP). To evaluate SOP, he directs half of the students in his “Software Methodology” class to do the project using traditional techniques, and the others to use SOP.

He finds that projects by the students using SOP have, on the average, 15% fewer bugs than the others, and reports that SOP increases software reliability.

What’s wrong with this story?

Professor Smith’s attempt at empirical software engineering is problematic for at least four reasons. Others could arise, but we do not need to consider them if Professor Smith has applied the expected precautions: the number of students should be large enough (standard statistical theory will tell us how much to trust the result for various sample sizes); the students should be assigned to one of the two groups on a truly random basis; the problem should be amenable to both SOP and non-SOP techniques; and the assessment of the number of bugs should in the results should be based on fair and if possible automated evaluation. Some respondents to the quiz cited these problems, but they would apply to any empirical study and we can assume they are being taken care of.

The first problem to consider is that the evaluator and the author of the concept under evaluation are the same person. This is an approach fraught with danger. We have no reason to doubt Professor Smith’s integrity, but he is human. Deep down, he wants SOP to be better than the alternative. That is bound to affect the study. It would be much more credible if someone else, with no personal stake in SOP, had performed it.

The second problem mirrors the first on the students’ side. The students from group 1 were told that they used Professor Smith’s great idea, those from group 2 that they had to use old, conventional, boring stuff. Did both groups apply the same zeal to their work? After all, the students know that Professor Smith created SOP, and maybe he is an convincing advocate, so group 1 students will (consciously or not) do their best; those from group 2 have less incentive to go the extra mile. What we may have at play here is a phenomenon known as the Hawthorne effect [3]: if you know you are being tested for a new technique, you typically work harder and better — and may produce better results even if the technique is worthless! Experiments dedicated to studying this effect show that even  a group that is in reality using the same technique as another does better, at least at the beginning, if it is told that it is using a new, sexy technique.

The first and second problems arise in all empirical studies, software-related or not. They are the reason why medical experiments use placebos and double-blind techniques (where neither the subjects nor the experimenters themselves know who is using which variant). These techniques often do not directly transpose to software experiments, but we should all the same be careful about empirical studies of assessments of one’s own work and about possible Hawthorne effects.

The third problem, less critical, is the validity of a study relying on students. To what extent can we extrapolate from the results to a situation in industry? Software engineering students are on their way to becoming software professionals, but they are not professionals yet. This is a difficult issue because universities, rather than industry, are usually and understandably the place where experiments take place, an sometimes there is no other choice than using students. But then one can question the validity of the results. It depends on the nature of the questions being asked: if the question under study is whether a certain idea is easy to learn, using students is reasonable. But if it is, for example, whether a technique produces less buggy programs, the results can depend significantly on the subjects’ experience, which is different for students and professionals.

The last problem does not by itself affect the validity of the results, but it is a show-stopper nonetheless: Professor Smith’s experiment is unethical! If is is indeed true that SOP is better than the alternative, he is harming students from group 2; in the reverse case, he is harming students from group 1. Only in the case of the null hypothesis (using SOP makes no statistically significant difference) is the experiment ethical, but then it is also profoundly uninteresting. The rule in course-related experiments is a variant of the Hippocratic oath: before all, do not harm. The first purpose of a course is to enrich the students’ knowledge and skills; secondary aims, such as helping the professor’s research, are definitely acceptable, but must never impede the first. The setup described above is all the less acceptable that the project results presumably count towards the course grade, so the students who were forced to use the less good technique, if there demonstrably was one, have grounds to complain.

Note that Professor Smith could partially address this fairness problem by letting students choose their group, instead of assigning them randomly to group 1 or group 2 (based for example on the first letter of their names). But then the results would lose credibility, because this technique introduces self-selection and hence bias: the students who choose SOP may be the more intellectually curious students, and hence possibly the ones who do better anyway.

If Professor Smith cannot ensure fairness, he can still use students for his experiment, but has to run it outside of a course, for example by paying students, or running the experiment as a competition with some prizes for those who produce the programs with fewest bugs. This technique can work, although it introduces further dangers of self-selection. As part of a course, however, you just cannot assign students, on your own authority, to different techniques that might have an different effect on the core goal of the course: the learning experience.

So Professor Smith has a long way to go before he can run experiments that will convey a significant argument in favor of SOP.

Over the years I have seen, as a reader and sometimes as a referee, many Professor Smith papers: “empirical” evaluation of a technique by its own authors, using questionable techniques and not applying the necessary methodological precautions.

A first step is, whenever possible, to use experimenters who are from a completely different group from the developers of the ideas, as in two studies [4] [5] about the effectiveness of pair programming.

And yet! Sometimes no one else is available, and you do want to obtain objective empirical evidence about the merits of your own ideas. You are aware of the risk, and ready to face the cold reality, including if the results are unfavorable. Can you do it?

A recent attempt of ours seems to suggest that this is possible if you exert great care. It will presented in a paper at the next ESEM (Empirical Software Engineering and Measurement) and even though it discusses assessing some aspects of our own designs, using students, as part of the course project which counts for grading, and separating them into groups, we feel it was fair and ethical, and </modesty_filter_on>an ESEM referee wrote: “this is one of the best designed, conducted, and presented empirical studies I have read about recently”<modesty_filter_on>.

How did we proceed? How would you have proceeded? Think about it; feel free to express your ideas as comments to this post. In the next installment of this blog (The Professor Smith Syndrome: Part 3), I will describe our work, and let you be the judge.

References

[1] Bertrand Meyer: The rise of empirical software engineering (I): the good news, this blog, 30 July 2010, available here.
[2] Bertrand Meyer: The rise of empirical software engineering (II): what we are still missing, this blog, 31 July 2010, available here.

[3] On the Hawthorne effect, there is a good Wikipedia entry. Acknowledgment: I first heard about the Hawthorne effect from Barry Boehm.

[4] Jerzy R. Nawrocki, Michal Jasinski, Lukasz Olek and Barbara Lange: Pair Programming vs. Side-by-Side Programming, in EuroSPI 2005, pages 28-38. I do not have a URL for this article.

[5] Matthias Müller: Two controlled Experiments concerning the Comparison of Pair Programming to Peer Review, in  Journal of Systems and Software, vol. 78, no. 2, pages 166-179, November 2005; and Are Reviews an Alternative to Pair Programming ?, in  Journal of Empirical Software Engineering, vol. 9, no. 4, December 2004. I don’t have a URL for either version. I am grateful to Walter Tichy for directing me to this excellent article.

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About Watts Humphrey

Watts Humphrey, 2007

At FOSE (see previous post [1]) we will honor the memory of Watts Humphrey, the pioneer of disciplined software engineering, who left us in October. A blog entry on my Communications of the ACM blog [2] briefly recalls some of Humphrey’s main contributions.

References

[1] The Future Of Software Engineering: previous entry of this blog.
[2] Watts Humphrey: In Honor of a Pioneer, in CACM blog.

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The rise of empirical software engineering (I): the good news

 

RecycledIn the next few days I will post a few comments about a topic of particular relevance to the future of our field: empirical software engineering. I am starting by reposting two entries originally posted in the CACM blog. Here is the first. Let me use this opportunity to mention the LASER summer school [1] on this very topic — it is still possible to register.

Empirical software engineering papers, at places like ICSE (the International Conference on Software Engineering), used to be terrible.

There were exceptions, of course, most famously papers by Basili, Zelkowitz, Rombach, Tichy, Berry, Humphrey, Gilb, Boehm, Lehmann, Belady and a few others, who kept hectoring the community about the need to base our opinions and practices on evidence rather than belief. But outside of these cases the typical ICSE empirical paper — I sat through a number of them — was depressing: we made these measurements in our company, found these results, just believe us. A question here in the back? Can you reproduce our results? Access our code? We’d love you to, but unfortunately we work for a company — the Call for Papers said industry contributions were welcome, didn’t it? — and we can’t give you the details. So sorry. But trust us, we checked our results.

Actually, there was another kind of empirical paper, which did not suffer from such secrecy: the university study. Hi, I am professor Bright, the well-known author of the Bright method of software development. Everyone knows it’s the best, but we wanted to assess it scientifically through a rigorous empirical study. I gave the same programming problem to two groups of third-year undergraduates; one group was told to use the Bright method, the other not. Guess what? The Bright group performed 67.94% better! I see the session chair wanting to move to the next speaker; see the details in the paper.

For years, this was most of what we had: unverifiable industry reports and unconvincing student experiments.

And suddenly the scene has changed. Empirical software engineering studies are in full bloom; the papers are flowing, and many are good!

What triggered this radical change is the availability of open-source repositories. Projects such as Linux, Eclipse, Apache, EiffelStudio and many others have records going back 10, 15, sometimes 20 years. These records contain the true history of the project: commits (into the configuration management system), bug reports, bug fixes, test runs and their results, developers involved, and many more elements of project data. All of a sudden empirical research has what any empirical science needs: a large corpus of objects to analyze.

Open-source projects have given the decisive jolt, but now we can rely on industrial data as well: Microsoft and other companies have started making their own records selectively available to researchers. In the work of authors such as Zeller from Sarrebruck, Gall from Uni. Zurich or Nagappan from Microsoft, systematic statistical techniques yield answers, sometimes surprising, to questions on which we could only speculate. Do novices or experts cause more bugs? Does test coverage correlate with software quality, and if so, positively or negatively? Little by little, we are learning about the true properties of software products and processes, based not on fantasies but on quantitative analysis of meaningful samples.

The trend is unmistakable, and irreversible.

Not all is right yet; in the second installment of this post I will describe some of what still needs to be improved for empirical software engineering to achieve full scientific rigor.

Reference

[1] LASER summer school 2010, at http://se.ethz.ch/laser.

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Another DOSE of distributed software development

The software world is not flat; it is multipolar. Gone are the days of one-site, one-team developments. The increasingly dominant model today is a distributed team; the place where the job gets done is the place where the appropriate people reside, even if it means that different parts of the job get done in different places.

This new setup, possibly the most important change to have affected the practice of software engineering in this early part of the millennium,  has received little attention in the literature; and even less in teaching techniques. I got interested in the topic several years ago, initially by looking at the phenomenon of outsourcing from a software engineering perspective [1]. At ETH, since 2004, Peter Kolb and I, aided by Martin Nordio and Roman Mitin, have taught a course on the topic [2], initially called “software engineering for outsourcing”. As far as I know it was the first course of its kind anywhere; not the first course about outsourcing, but the first to explore the software engineering implications, rather than business or political issues. We also teach an industry course on the same issues [3], attended since 2005 by several hundred participants, and started, with Mathai Joseph from Tata Consulting Services, the SEAFOOD conference [4], Software Engineering Advances For Outsourced and Offshore Development, whose fourth edition starts tomorrow in Saint Petersburg.

After a few sessions of the ETH course we realized that the most important property of the mode of software development explored in the course is not that it involves outsourcing but that it is distributed. In parallel I became directly involved with highly distributed development in the practice of Eiffel Software’s development. In 2007 we renamed the ETH course “Distributed and Outsourced Software Engineering” (DOSE) to acknowledge the broadened scope. The topic is still new; each year we learn a little more about what to teach and how to teach it.

The 2007 session saw another important addition. We felt it was no longer sufficient to talk about distributed development, but that students should practice it. Collaboration between groups in Zurich and other groups in Zurich was not good enough. So we contacted colleagues around the world interested in similar issues, and received an enthusiastic response. The DOSE project is itself distributed: teams from students in different universities collaborate in a single development. Typically, we have two or three geographically distributed locations in each project group. The participating universities have been Politecnico di Milano (where our colleagues Carlo Ghezzi and Elisabetta di Nitto have played a major role in the current version of the project), University of Nijny-Novgorod in Russia, University of Debrecen in Hungary, Hanoi University of Technology in Vietnam, Odessa National Polytechnic in the Ukraine and (across town for us) University of Zurich. For the first time in 2010 a university from the Western hemisphere will join: University of Rio Cuarto in Argentina.

We have extensively studied how the projects actually fare (see publications [4-8]). For students, the job is hard. Often, after a couple of weeks, many want to give up: they have trouble reaching their partner teams, understanding their accents on Skype calls, agreeing on modes of collaboration, finalizing APIs, devising a proper test plan. Yet they hang on and, in most cases, succeed. At the end of the course they tell us how much they have learned about software engineering. For example I know few better way of teaching the importance of carefully documented program interfaces — including contracts — than to ask the students to integrate their modules with code from another team halfway around the globe. This is exactly what happens in industrial software development, when you can no longer rely on informal contacts at the coffee machine or in the parking lot to smooth out misunderstandings: software engineering principles and techniques come in full swing. With DOSE, students learn and practice these fundamental techniques in the controlled environment of a university project.

An example project topic, used last year, was based on an idea by Martin Nordio. He pointed out that in most countries there are some card games played in that country only. The project was to program such a game, where the team in charge of the game logic (what would be the “business model” in an industrial project) had to explain enough of their country’s game, and abstractly enough, to enable the other team to produce the user interface, based on a common game engine started by Martin. It was tough, but some of the results were spectacular, and these are students who will not need more preaching on the importance of specifications.

We are currently preparing the next session of DOSE, in collaboration with our partner universities. The more the merrier: we’d love to have other universities participate, including from the US. Adding extra spice to the project, the topic will be chosen among those from the ICSE SCORE competition [9], so that winning students have the opportunity to attend ICSE in Hawaii. If you are teaching a suitable course, or can organize a student group that will fit, please read the project description [10] and contact me or one of the other organizers listed on the page. There is a DOSE of madness in the idea, but no one, teacher or student,  ever leaves the course bored.

References

[1] Bertrand Meyer: Offshore Development: The Unspoken Revolution in Software Engineering, in Computer (IEEE), January 2006, pages 124, 122-123. Available here.

[2] ETH course page: see here for last year’s session (description of Fall 2010 session will be added soon).

[3] Industry course page: see here for latest (June 2010( session (description of November 2010 session will be added soon).

[4] SEAFOOD 2010 home page.

[5] Bertrand Meyer and Marco Piccioni: The Allure and Risks of a Deployable Software Engineering Project: Experiences with Both Local and Distributed Development, in Proceedings of IEEE Conference on Software Engineering & Training (CSEE&T), Charleston (South Carolina), 14-17 April 2008, ed. H. Saiedian, pages 3-16. Preprint version  available online.

[6] Bertrand Meyer:  Design and Code Reviews in the Age of the Internet, in Communications of the ACM, vol. 51, no. 9, September 2008, pages 66-71. (Original version in Proceedings of SEAFOOD 2008 (Software Engineering Advances For Offshore and Outsourced Development,  Lecture Notes in Business Information Processing 16, Springer Verlag, 2009.) Available online.

[7] Martin Nordio, Roman Mitin, Bertrand Meyer, Carlo Ghezzi, Elisabetta Di Nitto and Giordano Tamburelli: The Role of Contracts in Distributed Development, in Proceedings of SEAFOOD 2009 (Software Engineering Advances For Offshore and Outsourced Development), Zurich, June-July 2009, Lecture Notes in Business Information Processing 35, Springer Verlag, 2009. Available online.

[8] Martin Nordio, Roman Mitin and Bertrand Meyer: Advanced Hands-on Training for Distributed and Outsourced Software Engineering, in ICSE 2010: Proceedings of 32th International Conference on Software Engineering, Cape Town, May 2010, IEEE Computer Society Press, 2010. Available online.

[9] ICSE SCORE 2011 competition home page.

[10] DOSE project course page.

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The other impediment to software engineering research

In the decades since structured programming, many of the advances in software engineering have come out of non-university sources, mostly of four kinds:

  • Start-up technology companies  (who played a large role, for example, in the development of object technology).
  • Industrial research labs, starting with Xerox PARC and Bell Labs.
  • Independent (non-university-based) author-consultants. 
  • Independent programmer-innovators, who start open-source communities (and often start their own businesses after a while, joining the first category).

 Academic research has had its part, honorable but limited.

Why? In earlier posts [1] [2] I analyzed one major obstacle to software engineering research: the absence of any obligation of review after major software disasters. I will come back to that theme, because the irresponsible attitude of politicial authorities hinders progress by depriving researchers of some of their most important potential working examples. But for university researchers there is another impediment: the near-impossibility of developing serious software.

If you work in theory-oriented parts of computer science, the problem is less significant: as part of a PhD thesis or in preparation of a paper you can develop a software prototype that will support your research all the way to the defense or the publication, and can be left to wither gracefully afterwards. But software engineering studies issues that arise for large systems, where  “large” encompasses not only physical size but also project duration, number of users, number of changes. A software engineering researcher who only ever works on prototypes will be denied the opportunity to study the most significant and challenging problems of the field. The occasional consulting job is not a substitute for this hands-on experience of building and maintaining large software, which is, or should be, at the core of research in our field.

The bodies that fund research in other sciences understood this long ago for physics and chemistry with their huge labs, for mechanical engineering, for electrical engineering. But in computer science or any part of it (and software engineering is generally viewed as a subset of computer science) the idea that we would actually do something , rather than talk about someone else’s artifacts, is alien to the funding process.

The result is an absurd situation that blocks progress. Researchers in experimental physics or mechanical engineering employ technicians: often highly qualified personnel who help researchers set up experiments and process results. In software engineering the equivalent would be programmers, software engineers, testers, technical writers; in the environments that I have seen, getting financing for such positions from a research agency is impossible. If you have requested a programmer position as part of a successful grant request, you can be sure that this item will be the first to go. Researchers quickly understand the situation and learn not even to bother including such requests. (I have personally never seen a counter-example. If you have a different experience, I will be interested to learn who the enlightened agency is. )

The result of this attitude of funding bodies is a catastrophe for software engineering research: the only software we can produce, if we limit ourselves to official guidelines, is demo software. The meaningful products of software engineering (large, significant, usable and useful open-source software systems) are theoretically beyond our reach. Of course many of us work around the restrictions and do manage to produce working software, but only by spending considerable time away from research on programming and maintenance tasks that would be far more efficiently handled by specialized personnel.

The question indeed is efficiency. Software engineering researchers should program as part of their normal work:  only by writing programs and confronting the reality of software development can we hope to make relevant contributions. But in the same way that an experimental physicist is helped by professionals for the parts of experimental work that do not carry a research value, a software engineering researcher should not have to spend time on porting the software to other architectures, performing configuration management, upgrading to new releases of the operating system, adapting to new versions of the libraries, building standard user interfaces, and all the other tasks, largely devoid of research potential, that software-based innovation requires.

Until  research funding mechanisms integrate the practical needs of software engineering research, we will continue to be stymied in our efforts to produce a substantial effect on the quality of the world’s software.

References

[1] The one sure way to advance software engineering: this blog, see here.
[2] Dwelling on the point: this blog, see here.

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Verification As a Matter Of Course

At the ACM Symposium on Applied Computing (SAC) in Sierre last week, I gave a talk entitled “How you will be programming in 10 years”, describing a number of efforts by various people, with a special emphasis on our work at both ETH and Eiffel Software, which I think point to the future of software development. Several people have asked me for the slides, so I am making them available [1].

It occurred to me after the talk that the slogan “Verification As a Matter Of Course” (VAMOC) characterizes the general idea well. The world needs verified software, but the software development community is reluctant  to use traditional heavy-duty verification techniques. While some of the excuses are unacceptable, others sources of resistance are justified and it is our job to make verification part of the very fabric of everyday software development.

My bet, and the basis of large part of both Eiffel and the ETH verification work, is that it is possible to bring verification to practicing developers as a natural, unobtrusive component of the software development process, through the tools they use.

The talk also broaches on concurrency, where many of the same ideas apply; CAMOC is the obvious next slogan.

Reference

[1] Slides of “How you will be programming in 10 years” talk (PDF).

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Dwelling on the point

Once again, and we are not learning!

La Repubblica of last Thursday [1] and other Italian newspapers have reported on a “computer” error that temporarily brought thousands of accounts at the national postal service bank into the red. It is a software error, due to a misplacement of the decimal points in some transactions.

As usual the technical details are hazy; La Repubblica writes that:

Because of a software change that did not succeed, the computer system did not always read the decimal point during transactions”.

As a result, it could for example happen that a 15.00-euro withdrawal was understood as 1500 euros.
I have no idea what “reading the decimal point ” means. (There is no mention of OCR, and the affected transactions seem purely electronic.) Only some of the 12 million checking or “Postamat” accounts were affected; the article cites a number of customers who could not withdraw money from ATMs because the system wrongly treated their accounts as over-drawn. It says that this was the only damage and that the postal service will send a letter of apology. The account leaves many questions unanswered, for example whether the error could actually have favored some customers, by allowing them to withdraw money they did not have, and if so what will happen.

The most important unanswered question is the usual one: what was the software error? As usual, we will probably never know. The news items will soon be forgotten, the postal service will somehow fix its code, life will go on. Nothing will be learned; the next time around similar causes will produce similar effects.

I criticized this lackadaisical attitude in an earlier column [2] and have to hammer its conclusion again: any organization using public money should be required, when it encounters a significant software malfunction, to let experts investigate the incident in depth and report the results publicly. As long as we keep forgetting our errors we will keep repeating them. Where would airline safety be in the absence of thorough post-accident reports? That a software error did not kill anyone is not a reason to ignore it. Whether it is the Italian post messing up, a US agency’s space vehicle crashing on the moon or any other software fault causing systems to fail, it is not enough to fix the symptoms: we must have a professional report and draw the lessons for the future.

Reference

[1] Luisa Grion: Poste in tilt per una virgola — conti gonfiati, stop ai prelievi. In La Repubblica, 26 November 2009, page 18 of the print version. (At the time of writing it does not appear at repubblica.it,  but see  the TV segment also titled “Poste in tilt per una virgola” on Primocanale Web TV here, and other press articles e.g. in Il Tempo here.)

[2] On this blog: The one sure way to advance software engineering (post of 21 August 2009).

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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.

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VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: +1 (from 3 votes)