Many coding mistakes are not immediately detectable

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.

Learning useful stuff from the Reliability chapter of my book

What useful, practical things might professional software developers learn from my evidence-based software engineering book?

Once the book is officially released I need to have good answers to this question (saying: “Well, I decided to collect all the publicly available software engineering data and say something about it”, is not going to motivate people to read the book).

This week I checked the reliability chapter; what useful things did I learn (combined with everything I learned during all the other weeks spent working on this chapter)?

A casual reader skimming the chapter would conclude that little was known about software reliability, and they would be right (I already knew this, but I learned that we know even less than I thought was known), and many researchers continue to dig in unproductive holes.

A reader with some familiarity with reliability research would be surprised to see that some ‘major’ topics are not discussed.

The train wreck that is machine learning has been avoided (not forgetting that the data used is mostly worthless), mutation testing gets mentioned because of some interesting data (the underlying problem is that mutation testing assumes that coding mistakes are local to one line, but in practice coding mistakes often involve multiple lines), and the theory discussions don’t mention non-homogeneous Poisson process as the basis for software fault models (because this process is not capable of solving the questions asked).

What did I learn? My highlights include:

  • Anne Choa‘s work on population estimation. The takeaway from this work is that if people want to estimate the number of remaining fault experiences, based on previous experienced faults, then every occurrence (i.e., not just the first) of a fault needs to be counted,
  • Janet Dunham’s top read work on software testing,
  • the variability in the numeric percentage that people assign to probability terms (e.g., almost all, likely, unlikely) is much wider than I would have thought,
  • the impact of the distribution of input values on fault experiences may be detectable,
  • really a lowlight, but there is a lot less publicly available data than I had expected (for the other chapters there was more data than I had expected).

The last decade has seen fuzzing grow to dominate the headlines around software reliability and testing, and provide data for people who write evidence-based books. I don’t have much of a feel for how widely used it is in industry, but it is a very useful tool for reliability researchers.

Readers might have a completely different learning experience from reading the reliability chapter. What useful things did you learn from the reliability chapter?

New users generate more exceptions than existing users (in one dataset)

Application usage data is one of the rarest kinds of public software engineering data.

Even data that might be used to approximate application usage is rare. Server logs might be used as a proxy for browser usage or operating system usage, and number of Debian package downloads as a proxy for usage of packages.

Usage data is an important component of fault prediction models, and the failure to incorporate such data is one reason why existing fault models are almost completely worthless.

The paper Deriving a Usage-Independent Software Quality Metric appeared a few months ago (it’s a bit of a kitchen sink of a paper), and included lots of usage data! As far as I know, this is a first.

The data relates to a mobile based communications App that used Google analytics to log basic usage information, i.e., daily totals of: App usage time, uses by existing users, uses by new users, operating system+version used by the mobile device, and number of exceptions raised by the App.

Working with daily totals means there is likely to be a non-trivial correlation between usage time and number of uses. Given that this is the only public data of its kind, it has to be handled (in my case, ignored for the time being).

I’m expecting to see a relationship between number of exceptions raised and daily usage (the data includes a count of fatal exceptions, which are less common; because lots of data is needed to build a good model, I went with the more common kind). So a’fishing I went.

On most days no exception occurred (zero is the ideal case for the vendor, but I want lots of exception to build a good model). Daily exception counts are likely to be small integers, which suggests a Poisson error model.

It is likely that the same set of exceptions were experienced by many users, rather like the behavior that occurs when fuzzing a program.

Applications often have an initial beta testing period, intended to check that everything works. Lucky for me the beta testing data is included (i.e., more exceptions are likely to occur during beta testing, which get sorted out prior to official release). This is the data I concentrated my modeling.

The model I finally settled on has the form (code+data):

Exceptions approx uses^{0.1}newUserUses^{0.54}e^{0.002sqrt{usagetime}}AndroidVersion

Yes, newUserUses had a much bigger impact than uses. This was true for all the models I built using data for all Android/iOS Apps, and the exponent difference was always greater than two.

Why square-root, rather than log? The model fit was much better for square-root; too much better for me to be willing to go with a model which had usagetime as a power-law.

The impact of AndroidVersion varied by several orders of magnitude (which won’t come as a surprise to developers using earlier versions of Android).

There were not nearly as many exceptions once the App became generally available, and there were a lot fewer exceptions for the iOS version.

The outsized impact of new users on exceptions experienced is easily explained by developers failing to check for users doing nonsensical things (which users new to an App are prone to do). Existing users have a better idea of how to drive an App, and tend to do the kind of things that developers expect them to do.

As always, if you know of any interesting software engineering data, please let me know.