Many coding mistakes are not immediately detectable

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

Earlier this week I was reading a paper discussing one aspect of the legal fallout around the UK Post-Office’s Horizon IT system, and was surprised to read the view that the Law Commission’s Evidence in Criminal Proceedings Hearsay and Related Topics were citing on the subject of computer evidence (page 204): “most computer error is either immediately detectable or results from error in the data entered into the machine”.

What? Do I need to waste any time explaining why this is nonsense? It’s obvious nonsense to anybody working in software development, but this view is being expressed in law related documents; what do lawyers know about software development.

Sometimes fallacies become accepted as fact, and a lot of effort is required to expunge them from cultural folklore. Regular readers of this blog will have seen some of my posts on long-standing fallacies in software engineering. It’s worth collecting together some primary evidence that most software mistakes are not immediately detectable.

A paper by Professor Tapper of Oxford University is cited as the source (yes, Oxford, home of mathematical orgasms in software engineering). Tapper’s job title is Reader in Law, and on page 248 he does say: “This seems quite extraordinarily lax, given that most computer error is either immediately detectable or results from error in the data entered into the machine.” So this is not a case of his words being misinterpreted or taken out of context.

Detecting many computer errors is resource intensive, both in elapsed time, manpower and compute time. The following general summary provides some of the evidence for this assertion.

Two events need to occur for a fault experience to occur when running software:

  • a mistake has been made when writing the source code. Mistakes include: a misunderstanding of what the behavior should be, using an algorithm that does not have the desired behavior, or a typo,
  • the program processes input values that interact with a coding mistake in a way that produces a fault experience.

That people can make different mistakes is general knowledge. It is my experience that people underestimate the variability of the range of values that are presented as inputs to a program.

A study by Nagel and Skrivan shows how variability of input values results in fault being experienced at different time, and that different people make different coding mistakes. The study had three experienced developers independently implement the same specification. Each of these three implementations was then tested, multiple times. The iteration sequence was: 1) run program until fault experienced, 2) fix fault, 3) if less than five faults experienced, goto step (1). This process was repeated 50 times, always starting with the original (uncorrected) implementation; the replications varied this, along with the number of inputs used.

How many input values needed to be processed, on average, before a particular fault is experienced? The plot below (code+data) shows the numbers of inputs processed, by one of the implementations, before individual faults were experienced, over 50 runs (sorted by number of inputs needed before the fault was experienced):

Number of inputs processed before particular fault experienced

The plot illustrates that some coding mistakes are more likely to produce a fault experience than others (because they are more likely to interact with input values in a way that generates a fault experience), and it also shows how the number of inputs values processed before a particular fault is experienced varies between coding mistakes.

Real-world evidence of the impact of user input on reported faults is provided by the Ultimate Debian Database, which provides information on the number of reported faults and the number of installs for 14,565 packages. The plot below shows how the number of reported faults increases with the number of times a package has been installed; one interpretation is that with more installs there is a wider variety of input values (increasing the likelihood of a fault experience), another is that with more installs there is a larger pool of people available to report a fault experience. Green line is a fitted power law, faultsReported=1.3*installs^{0.3}, blue line is a fitted loess model.

Number of inputs processed before particular fault experienced

The source containing a mistake may be executed without a fault being experienced; reasons for this include:

  • the input values don’t result in the incorrect code behaving differently from the correct code. For instance, given the made-up incorrect code if (x < 8) (i.e., 8 was typed rather than 7), the comparison only produces behavior that differs from the correct code when x has the value 7,
  • the input values result in the incorrect code behaving differently than the correct code, but the subsequent path through the code produces the intended external behavior.

Some of the studies that have investigated the program behavior after a mistake has deliberately been introduced include:

  • checking the later behavior of a program after modifying the value of a variable in various parts of the source; the results found that some parts of a program were more susceptible to behavioral modification (i.e., runtime behavior changed) than others (i.e., runtime behavior not change),
  • checking whether a program compiles and if its runtime behavior is unchanged after random changes to its source code (in this study, short programs written in 10 different languages were used),
  • 80% of radiation induced bit-flips have been found to have no externally detectable effect on program behavior.

What are the economic costs and benefits of finding and fixing coding mistakes before shipping vs. waiting to fix just those faults reported by customers?

Checking that a software system exhibits the intended behavior takes time and money, and the organization involved may not be receiving any benefit from its investment until the system starts being used.

In some applications the cost of a fault experience is very high (e.g., lowering the landing gear on a commercial aircraft), and it is cost-effective to make a large investment in gaining a high degree of confidence that the software behaves as expected.

In a changing commercial world software systems can become out of date, or superseded by new products. Given the lifetime of a typical system, it is often cost-effective to ship a system expected to contain many coding mistakes, provided the mistakes are unlikely to be executed by typical customer input in a way that produces a fault experience.

Beta testing provides selected customers with an early version of a new release. The benefit to the software vendor is targeted information about remaining coding mistakes that need to be fixed to reduce customer fault experiences, and the benefit to the customer is checking compatibility of their existing work practices with the new release (also, some people enjoy being able to brag about being a beta tester).

  • One study found that source containing a coding mistake was less likely to be changed due to fixing the mistake than changed for other reasons (that had the effect of causing the mistake to disappear),
  • Software systems don't live forever; systems are replaced or cease being used. The plot below shows the lifetime of 202 Google applications (half-life 2.9 years) and 95 Japanese mainframe applications from the 1990s (half-life 5 years; code+data).

    Number of software systems having a given lifetime, in days

Not only are most coding mistakes not immediately detectable, there may be sound economic reasons for not investing in detecting many of them.

Quality control in a zero cost of replication business

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

When a new manufacturing material becomes available, its use is often integrated with existing techniques, e.g., using scientific management techniques for software production.

Customers want reliable products, and companies that sell unreliable products don’t make money (and may even lose lots of money).

Quality assurance of manufactured products is a huge subject, and lots of techniques have been developed.

Needless to say, quality assurance techniques applied to the production of hardware are often touted (and sometimes applied) as the solution for improving the quality of software products (whatever quality is currently being defined as).

There is a fundamental difference between the production of hardware and software:

  • Hardware is designed, a prototype made and this prototype refined until it is ready to go into production. Hardware production involves duplicating an existing product. The purpose of quality control for hardware production is ensuring that the created copies are close enough to identical to the original that they can be profitably sold. Industrial design has to take into account the practicalities of mass production, e.g., can this device be made at a low enough cost.
  • Software involves the same design, prototype, refinement steps, in some form or another. However, the final product can be perfectly replicated at almost zero cost, e.g., downloadable file(s), burn a DVD, etc.

Software production is a once-off process, and applying techniques designed to ensure the consistency of a repetitive process don’t sound like a good idea. Software production is not at all like mass production (the build process comes closest to this form of production).

Sometimes people claim that software development does involve repetition, in that a tiny percentage of the possible source code constructs are used most of the time. The same is also true of human communications, in that a few words are used most of the time. Does the frequent use of a small number of words make speaking/writing a repetitive process in the way that manufacturing identical widgets is repetitive?

The virtually zero cost of replication (and distribution, via the internet, for many companies) does more than remove a major phase of the traditional manufacturing process. Zero cost of replication has a huge impact on the economics of quality control (assuming high quality is considered to be equivalent to high reliability, as measured by number of faults experienced by customers). In many markets it is commercially viable to ship software products that are believed to contain many mistakes, because the cost of fixing them is so very low; unlike the cost of hardware, which is non-trivial and involves shipping costs (if only for a replacement).

Zero defects is not an economically viable mantra for many software companies. When companies employ people to build the same set of items, day in day out, there is economic sense in having them meet together (e.g., quality circles) to discuss saving the company money, by reducing production defects.

Many software products have a short lifespan, source code has a brief and lonely existence, and many development projects are never shipped to paying customers.

In software development companies it makes economic sense for quality circles to discuss the minimum number of known problems they need to fix, before shipping a product.

Using Black-Scholes in software engineering gives a rough lower bound

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

In the financial world, a call option is a contract that gives the buyer the option (but not the obligation) to purchase an asset, at an agreed price, on an agreed date (from the other party to the contract).

If I think that the price of jelly beans is going to increase, and you disagree, then I might pay you a small amount of money for the right to buy a jar of jelly beans from you, in a month’s time, at today’s price. A month from now, if the price of Jelly beans has gone down, I buy a jar from whoever at the lower price, but if the price has gone up, you have to sell me a jar at the previously agreed price.

I’m in the money if the price of Jelly beans goes up, you are in the money if the price goes down (I paid you a premium for the right to purchase at what is known as the strike price).

Do you see any parallels with software development here?

Let’s say I have to rush to complete implementation some functionality by the end of the week. I might decide to forego complete testing, or following company coding practices, just to get the code out. At a later date I can decide to pay the time needed to correct my short-cuts; it is possible that the functionality is not used, so the rework is not needed.

This sounds like a call option (you might have thought of technical debt, which is, technically, the incorrect common usage term). I am both the buyer and seller of the contract. As the seller of the call option I received the premium of saved time, and the buyer pays a premium via the potential for things going wrong. Sometime later the seller might pay the price of sorting out the code.

A put option involves the right to sell (rather than buy).

In the financial world, speculators are interested in the optimal pricing of options, i.e., what should the premium, strike price and expiry date be for an asset having a given price volatility?

The Black-Scholes equation answers this question (and won its creators a Nobel prize).

Over the years, various people have noticed similarities between financial options thinking, and various software development activities. In fact people have noticed these similarities in a wide range of engineering activities, not just computing.

The term real options is used for options thinking outside of the financial world. The difference in terminology is important, because financial and engineering assets can have very different characteristics, e.g., financial assets are traded, while many engineering assets are sunk costs (such as drilling a hole in the ground).

I have been regularly encountering uses of the Black-Scholes equation, in my trawl through papers on the economics of software engineering (in some cases a whole PhD thesis). In most cases, the authors have clearly failed to appreciate that certain preconditions need to be met, before the Black-Scholes equation can be applied.

I now treat use of the Black-Scholes equation, in a software engineering paper, as reasonable cause for instant deletion of the pdf.

If you meet somebody talking about the use of Black-Scholes in software engineering, what questions should you ask them to find out whether they are just sprouting techno-babble?

  • American options are a better fit for software engineering problems; why are you using Black-Scholes? An American option allows the option to be exercised at any time up to the expiry date, while a European option can only be exercised on the expiry date. The Black-Scholes equation is a solution for European options (no optimal solution for American options is known). A sensible answer is that use of Black-Scholes provides a rough estimate of the lower bound of the asset value. If they don’t know the difference between American/European options, well…
  • Partially written source code is not a tradable asset; why are you using Black-Scholes? An assumption made in the derivation of the Black-Scholes equation is that the underlying assets are freely tradable, i.e., people can buy/sell them at will. Creating source code is a sunk cost, who would want to buy code that is not working? A sensible answer may be that use of Black-Scholes provides a rough estimate of the lower bound of the asset value (you can debate this point). If they don’t know about the tradable asset requirement, well…
  • How did you estimate the risk adjusted discount rate? Options involve balancing risks and getting values out of the Black-Scholes equation requires plugging in values for risk. Possible answers might include the terms replicating portfolio and marketed asset disclaimer (MAD). If they don’t know about risk adjusted discount rates, well…

If you want to learn more about real options: “Investment under uncertainty” by Dixit and Pindyck, is a great read if you understand differential equations, while “Real options” by Copeland and Antikarov contains plenty of hand holding (and you don’t need to know about differential equations).

Altruistic innovation and the study of software economics

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

Recently, I have been reading rather a lot of papers that are ostensibly about the economics of markets where applications, licensed under an open source license, are readily available. I say ostensibly, because the authors have some very odd ideas about the activities of those involved in the production of open source.

Perhaps I am overly cynical, but I don’t think altruism is the primary motivation for developers writing open source. Yes, there is an altruistic component, but I would list enjoyment as the primary driver; developers enjoy solving problems that involve the production of software. On the commercial side, companies are involved with open source because of naked self-interest, e.g., commoditizing software that complements their products.

It may surprise you to learn that academic papers, written by economists, tend to be knee-deep in differential equations. As a physics/electronics undergraduate I got to spend lots of time studying various differential equations (each relating to some aspect of the workings of the Universe). Since graduating, I have rarely encountered them; that is, until I started reading economics papers (or at least trying to).

Using differential equations to model problems in economics sounds like a good idea, after all they have been used to do a really good job of modeling how the universe works. But the universe is governed by a few simple principles (or at least the bit we have access to is), and there is lots of experimental data about its behavior. Economic issues don’t appear to be governed by a few simple principles, and there is relatively little experimental data available.

Writing down a differential equation is easy, figuring out an analytic solution can be extremely difficult; the Navier-Stokes equations were written down 200-years ago, and we are still awaiting a general solution (solutions for a variety of special cases are known).

To keep their differential equations solvable, economists make lots of simplifying assumptions. Having obtained a solution to their equations, there is little or no evidence to compare it against. I cannot speak for economics in general, but those working on the economics of software are completely disconnected from reality.

What factors, other than altruism, do academic economists think are of major importance in open source? No, not constantly reinventing the wheel-barrow, but constantly innovating. Of course, everybody likes to think they are doing something new, but in practice it has probably been done before. Innovation is part of the business zeitgeist and academic economists are claiming to see it everywhere (and it does exist in their differential equations).

The economics of Linux vs. Microsoft Windows is a common comparison, i.e., open vs. close source; I have not seen any mention of other open source operating systems. How might an economic analysis of different open source operating systems be framed? How about: “An economic analysis of the relative enjoyment derived from writing an operating system, Linux vs BSD”? Or the joy of writing an editor, which must be lots of fun, given how many have text editors are available.

I have added the topics, altruism and innovation to my list of indicators of poor quality, used to judge whether its worth spending more than 10 seconds reading a paper.