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Archive for August, 2011

sparse can now generate executables

August 29th, 2011 4 comments

How can you be confident that a source code analysis tool is correct when its analysis of a file does not result in any warning being generated? The best way I know of addressing this issue is for the analysis tool to be capable of generating an executable from the source. Executing a moderately large program requires that the translator get all sorts of complicated analysis correct and provides a huge boost to confidence of correctness compared to an analysis tool that does not have this ability.

Congratulations to the maintainers of sparse (a Linux kernel specific analysis tool started by Linus Torvalds in 2003) for becoming one of the very small number of source code analysis tools capable of generating executable programs.

The Model C Implementation is another tool capable of generating executables. I would love to be able to say that the reason for this was dedication to perfection by the project team, however, the truth is that it started life as a compiler and became an analyzer later.

Clang, the C front end+analyzer to llvm is often referred to as a static analyzer. While it does perform some static checking (like gcc does when the -Wall option is specified) a lot more checks needs to be supported before it can be considered on a par with modern static analysis tools.

GCC’s Treehydra project works via a plug-in to the compiler. This project has yet to live up to its potential so we can delay discussion of whether it should be classified as a standalone system or an executable generator.

I cannot think of any other ‘full language’ static analysis tools capable of generating executable programs (the C-semantics tool restricts its checks to those required by the C Standard and I think tools need to do a lot more than this to be considered static analysis tools). Corrections to my lack of knowledge welcome.

I was a little concerned that there were plans afoot to migrate sparse to becoming the build compiler for the Linux kernel. Linus answered my query by saying that this was never a goal.

Halstead’s metrics and flat-Earthers are still with us

August 18th, 2011 2 comments

I recently discovered a fascinating series of technical reports from the 1970s in the Purdue University e-Pubs archive that shine a surprising light on what are now known as the Halstead metrics.

The first surprises came from Halstead’s A Software Physics Analysis of Akiyama’s Debugging Data; surprising in the size of the data set used (nine measurements of four attributes), the amount of hand waving used to pluck numbers out of thin air, the substantial difference between the counting methods used then and now and the very high correlation found between various measured and calculated attributes.

I disagreed with the numbers Halstead plucked and wrote some R to check Halstead’s results and try out my own numbers. While my numbers significantly changed the effort estimation values, the high correlations between the number of faults and various source attributes remained high. Even changing from the Pearson correlation coefficient (calculating confidence bounds for this coefficient requires that the data be normally distributed, which it is not {program size is now thought to follow a power law/exponential like distribution}) to the Spearman rank correlation coefficient did not have much impact. Halstead seems to have struck luck with this data set.

What did Halstead’s colleagues at Purdue think of these metrics? The report Software Science Revisited: A Critical Analysis of the Theory and Its Empirical Support written four years after Halstead’s flurry of papers contains a lot of background material and points out the lack of any theoretical foundation for some of the equations, that the analysis of the data was weak and that a more thorough analysis suggests theory and data don’t agree. Damming stuff.

If it is known that Halstead’s metrics do not hold up why do writers of books (including Shen, Conte and Dunsmore, the authors of the above report) continue to discuss Halstead’s work? Are they treating this work like Astronomy authors treat Ptolemy’s theory (the Sun and planets revolved around the Earth), i.e., incorrect but part of history and worth a mention?

An observation in the Shen et al report, that Halstead originally proposed the metrics as a way of measuring the complexity of algorithms not programs, explains the background to the report Impurities Found in Algorithm Implementations. Halstead uses the term “impurities” and talks about the need for “purification” in his early work. In this report Halstead points out that the value of metrics for “algorithms written by students” are very different from those for the equivalent programs published in journals and goes on to list eight classes of impurity that need to be purified (i.e., removing or rewriting clumsy, inefficient or duplicate code) in order to obtain results that agree with the theory. Now we know what needs to be done to existing programs to get them to agree with the predictions made by the Halstead metrics!

Did Halstead strike lucky with the data used in his first published analysis of ‘industrial code’, obtaining a very high correlation that caused him to shift focus away from measuring algorithms to measuring programs? Unfortunately he died soon after publishing the work for which he is now known, so he did not get to comment on how his ideas were used over the subsequent years.

Why are people still attracted to the Halstead metrics, given their poor theoretical foundations and a predictive power that is comparable with using lines of code? Is it because the idea of code volume and length are easy to understand and so are attractive (dimensionally both of these metrics are the same, a fact that cannot hold for any self consistent concept of volume and length)? Is it because we don’t have alternative metrics that outperform the poorly performing ones proposed by Halstead, after all Copernicus only won out because his theory gave answers that were more accurate than Ptolomy’s.

Perhaps like the flat Earthers proponents of the Halstead metrics will always be with us.

Ruby becoming an ISO Standard

August 12th, 2011 No comments

The Ruby language is going through the process of becoming an ISO Standard (it has been assigned the document number ISO/IEC 30170).

There are two ways of creating an ISO Standard, a document that has been accepted by another standards’ body can be fast tracked to be accepted as-is by ISO or a committee can be set up to write the document. In the case of Ruby a standard was created under the auspices of JISC (Japanese Industrial Standards Committee) and this has now been submitted to ISO for fast tracking.

The fast track process involves balloting the 18 P-members of SC22 (the ISO committee responsible for programming languages), asking for a YES/NO/ABSTAIN vote on the submitted document becoming an ISO Standard. NO votes have to be accompanied by a list of things that need to be addressed for the vote to change to YES.

In most cases the fast tracking of a document goes through unnoticed (Microsoft’s Office Open XML being a recent high profile exception). The more conscientious P-members attempt to locate national experts who can provide worthwhile advice on the country’s response, while the others usually vote YES out of politeness.

Once an ISO Standard is published future revisions are supposed to be created using the ISO process (i.e., a committee attended by interested parties from P-member countries proposes changes, discusses and when necessary votes on them). When the C# ECMA Standard was fast tracked through ISO in 2005 Microsoft did not start working with an ISO committee but fast tracked a revised C# ECMA Standard through ISO; the UK spotted this behavior and flagged it. We will have to wait and see where work on any future revisions takes place.

Why would any group want to make the effort to create an ISO Standard? The Ruby language designers reasons appear to be “improve the compatibility between different Ruby implementations” (experience shows that compatibility is driven by customer demand not ISO Standards) and government procurement in Japan (skip to last comment).

Prior to the formal standards work the Rubyspec project aimed to create an executable specification. As far as I can see this is akin to some of the tools I wrote about a few months ago.

IST/5, the committee at British Standards responsible for language standards is looking for UK people (people in other countries have to contact their national standards’ body) interested in getting involved with the Ruby ISO Standard’s work. I am a member of IST/5 and if you email me I will pass your contact details along to the chairman.

Estimating the reliability of compiler subcomponent

August 3rd, 2011 2 comments

Compiler stress testing can be used for more than finding bugs in compilers, it can also be used to obtain information about the reliability of individual components of a compiler. A recent blog post by John Regehr, lead investigator for the Csmith project, covered a proposal to improve an often overlooked aspect of automated compiler stress testing (removing non-essential code from a failing test case so it is small enough to be acceptable in a bug report; attaching 500 lines of source to a report in a sure fire way for it to be ignored) triggered this post. I hope that John’s proposal is funded and it would be great if the researchers involved also received funding to investigate component reliability using the data they obtain.

One process for estimating the reliability of the components of a compiler, or any other program, is:

  • divide the compiler into a set of subcomponents. These components might be a collection of source files obtained through cluster analysis of the source, obtained from a functional analysis of the implementation documents or some other means,
  • count the number of times each component executes correctly and incorrectly (this requires associating bugs with components by tracing bug fixes to the changes they induce in source files; obtaining this information will consume the largest amount of the human powered work) while processing lots of source. The ratio of these two numbers, for a given component, is an estimate of the reliability of that component.

How important is one component to the overall reliability of the whole compiler? This question can be answered if the set of components is treated as a Markov chain and the component transition probabilities are obtained using runtime profiling (see Large Empirical Case Study of Architecture–based Software Reliability by Goševa-Popstojanova, Hamill and Perugupalli for a detailed discussion).

Reliability is a important factor in developers’ willingness to enable some optimizations. Information from a component reliability analysis could be used to support an option that only enabled optimization components having a reliability greater than a developer supplied value.

The one big threat to validity of this approach is that stress tests are not representative of typical code. One possibility is to profile the compiler processing lots of source (say of the order of a common Linux distribution) and merge the transition probabilities, probably weighted, to those obtained from stress tests.