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Error-free Software Is in Reach, but Is Anyone Reaching?

Software errors cost us billions of dollars and may soon wreak havoc on our day-to-day lives. Buggy software isn't inevitable, but the software development industry has some deeply entrenched and dangerous misconceptions that are preventing us from making defect-free software.

lmost everyone nowadays knows what the neologisms "bluescreen" and "general protection fault (gpf)" mean. That these terms are so familiar attests to the fact that computer users have come to accept software errors as an unavoidable fact of life. But now many computer professionals are starting to ask whether this situation can be allowed to continue.

According to a report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), software errors cost us approximately $60 billion per year in lost productivity, increased time to market costs, higher market transaction costs, etc. If allowed to continue unchecked this problem's costs may get much worse.

After all, over the last few decades hardware manufacturers have improved the manufacturing process to the point that we are surprised if our televisions or refrigerators malfunction while during this same time frame we have grown accustomed to constant errors in software. The problem we now face is that software is just beginning to find its way into refrigerators, cars, televisions, stereos, and cell phones. While today's cars operate mechanically, tomorrow's cars will be controlled by software. The real danger of software errors lies in the possibility that these errors will destroy the quality of products that we have come to expect to work without failure. It is not unreasonable to think that in the not-so-distant future we will have to restart our cars and refrigerators so as to reboot their internal computers when software errors cause malfunctions.

These software-controlled devices are already starting to appear. My mobile device, the Pocket PC Phone Edition is a good example. I have been using the device for the past six months and I'm sorry to say that I need to restart the device at least half a dozen times a day. There have been numerous incidents where I am unable to receive an incoming phone call because the screen freezes up. A reset is required to fix this, and my phone call is missed; faulty software is to blame. Admittedly I finally had enough and demanded the vendor to provide me with a newer model, which operates significantly better, although not perfectly.

The Culprit
In an interview with Watts S. Humphrey, a Fellow of the Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute (SEI) and Former Director of Software Quality and Process for IBM, I learned that "even experienced engineers on average will inject a defect every 9 to 10 lines of code." Watts says that by using the right development practices we can lower this by 50 percent and maybe more, but it seems that we will never realize the ideal of developers who make no mistakes. So instead we must find better means to identify and eradicate defects.

Management has come to believe the first and most important misconception: that it is impossible to ship software devoid of errors in a cost-effective way.

"The industry has not armed software developers with the testing tools necessary to meet the challenges of large scale software development", said Amitabh Srivastava, one of only 16 distinguished engineers at Microsoft and director of Microsoft Research. In other words, the tools necessary to ensure high quality software have not evolved as quickly as the industry's need for these tools. Srivastava says this is because much of the testing technology infrastructure is still in the academic research phase. Microsoft has since announced the formation of the a "Think Tank" on Trustworthy Computing comprising numerous professors.

In lieu of proper testing tools the industry has relied on human software testers. Human-based testing is only partially effective. Ironically, in a cost-constrained software development project, software testers are almost always the first to be pink-slipped. The result is an industry replete with software that has undergone minimal testing.

Managerial Misconceptions
To effectively address the problem of software quality we must first dismiss several misconceptions that seem to permeate the business community. Management has come to believe the first and most important misconception: that it is impossible to ship software devoid of errors in a cost-effective way. Indeed, even in university classrooms, professors teach that all software will have errors. This is simply untrue. Were this belief sustained by the automobile manufacturing industry then we would still be driving cars that break down every 5,000 miles. The truth is that errors can be avoided, and error-free software is not an unattainable reality. What's more, the cost of shipping higher quality software can even be less than the cost of shipping the software with errors! With a little education and a few well chosen products, software quality can improve radically.

Software development is not an art, and programmers are not artists, despite any claims to the contrary.

The second misconception is that software is an art; this misconception is as damaging to software quality as it is misleading. Good software is an applied science and must be treated as such. The computer sciences have their roots firmly planted in the field of mathematics, and few would classify mathematics as an art form. Software development is not an art, and programmers are not artists, despite any claims to the contrary.

The current process of software testing is based on the third misconception: that software errors are unique. Many studies have concluded that software development groups make the same errors time and time again, irrespective of the software they are trying to build. But the QA process we use today focuses on curing existing errors rather than preventing errors. Common sense tells us that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Yet still our QA process continues. And inevitably the QA department is unable to fulfill even this role adequately because human software testing is unlikely to test all possible combinations and permutations. Many paths of execution are left untested. In short, the current process of software testing is based on the misconception that software errors are unique; the result is a testing process that reflects the first assumption: that software errors are unavoidable.

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