Home > Uncategorized > Low defect density implies climate code less, not more, reliable

Low defect density implies climate code less, not more, reliable

I have just been reading a paper comparing the defect density of three climate modeling systems against software from other application domains. The defect density (total reported defects divided by thousands of lines of code) of the climate modeling software was significantly lower than everything else, leading the researchers to conclude that “… suggests that the models are of high software quality,”. I would draw the opposite conclusion, the models have low reliability (I have no idea what software quality is and avoid using the term).

I don’t disagree with Pipitone and Easterbrook numbers, just their conclusion.

There is a very simple technique for creating software that has a low defect density, don’t try too hard to look for defects. There are two reasons why I think this has happened with the climate model software:

  1. Three of the non-climate systems compared against were the Apache HTTP demon, the VTK visulalization toolkit and the Eclipse project. These are all wide used projects with many thousands of users, millions for Apache; this volume of usage corresponds to a huge amount of testing and it is no wonder that so many faults have been reported. Each climate model tends to be used by one site, a tiny amount of testing and it is not surprising that few faults have been reported.
  2. Climate models have a big intrinsic testing problem; what is the result of a test supposed to be? With applications such as word processors, browsers, compilers, operating systems, etc the expected behavior is known in many cases so it is possible to write a test cases that checks for the expected behavior. How does anybody know what the expected behavior of a climate model is? If all the climate models did was to solve the Navier-Stokes equation on a rotating sphere there would be no need for multiple models and the UK Meteorological Office’s Unified model would not have grown from 100 KLOC to 800+ KLOC over the last 15 years.

The one system having a similar defect density to the climate models that Pipitone and Easterbrook compare against is an air traffic control system developed using formal methods, exactly the kind of (expensive and time consuming) development process that one would expect to have a low defect density.

Software is remarkably fault tolerant and so, yes serious fault could exist in the climate models and they would still give answers that looked about right. Based on his experience working on a meteorological model Les Hatton tells the story of a fault so serious that the answers should be completely wrong, but they were not.

If somebody wants to convince me that the software in any of these climate models really is reliable then I want to know about the test suites used to check the behavior; what coverage of the source does the suite have (a high MC/DC would be very good but I would settle for a very high statement coverage) and how were the expected behaviors calculated.

  1. jasmine gray
    December 25th, 2012 at 09:06 | #1

    Of course, the real test of whether this software is reliable is whether it can actually predict changes in climate. E.g., if you plug in the data from 20 years ago, will it predict what the state of the system is today? If it can’t do that, then no matter how faithfully the code implements the algorithm, the algorithm is useless.

  2. December 25th, 2012 at 11:26 | #2

    @jasmine gray
    That would certainly show that the software worked for one dataset, but would the code work correctly when the data involves very different weather (e.g., a drought rather than a flood or vice versa). The only reliable way is to break tings up into small parts for which it is possible to figure out the expected behavior and then run lots of tests on the parts, i.e., oversized unit testing

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