The IEEE Standard for Requirements Specifications , 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 .
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 .
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
…..i := i + 1
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
 IEEE Computer Society: IEEE Recommended Practice for Software Requirements SpeciÞcations, IEEE Standard 830-1998, revised 1998; available here (with subscription).
 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.
 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.