Team, Visitors, External Collaborators
Overall Objectives
Research Program
Application Domains
New Software and Platforms
New Results
Bilateral Contracts and Grants with Industry
Partnerships and Cooperations
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Section: Overall Objectives

Software reliability and reusability

Software nowadays plays a pervasive role in our environment: it runs not only on general-purpose computers, as found in homes, offices, and data centers, but also on mobile phones, credit cards, inside transportation systems, factories, and so on. Furthermore, whereas building a single isolated software system was once rightly considered a daunting task, today, tens of millions of developers throughout the world collaborate to develop software components that have complex interdependencies. Does this mean that the “software crisis” of the early 1970s, which Dijsktra described as follows, is over?

By now it is generally recognized that the design of any large sophisticated system is going to be a very difficult job, and whenever one meets people responsible for such undertakings, one finds them very much concerned about the reliability issue, and rightly so. – Edsger W. Dijkstra

To some extent, the crisis is indeed over. In the past five decades, strong emphasis has been put on modularity and reusability. It is by now well-understood how to build reusable software components, thus avoiding repeated programming effort and reducing costs. The availability of hundreds of thousands of such components, hosted in collaborative repositories, has allowed the software industry to bloom in a manner that was unimaginable a few decades ago.

As pointed out by Dijkstra, however, the problem is not just to build software, but to ensure that it works. Today, the reliability of most software leaves a lot to be desired. Consumer-grade software, including desktop, Web, and mobile phone applications, often crashes or exhibits unexpected behavior. This results in loss of time, loss of data, and also can often be exploited for malicious purposes by attackers. Reliability includes safety—exhibiting appropriate behavior under normal usage conditions—and security—resisting abuse in the hands of an attacker.

Today, achieving very high levels of reliability is possible, albeit at a tremendous cost in time and money. In the aerospace industry, for instance, high reliability is obtained via meticulous development processes, extensive testing efforts, and external reviewing by independent certification authorities. There and elsewhere, formal verification is also used, instead of or in addition to the above methods. In the hardware industry, model-checking is used to verify microprocessor components. In the critical software industry, deductive program verification has been used to verify operating system kernels, file systems, compilers, and so on. Unfortunately, these methods are difficult to apply in industries that have strong cost and time-to-market constraints, such as the automotive industry, let alone the general software industry.

Today, thus, we arguably still are experiencing a “reliable-software crisis”. Although we have become pretty good at producing and evolving software, we still have difficulty producing cheap reliable software.

How to resolve this crisis remains, to a large extent, an open question. Modularity and reusability seem needed now more than ever, not only in order to avoid repeated programming effort and reduce the likelihood of errors, but also and foremost to avoid repeated specification and verification effort. Still, apparently, the languages that we use to write software are not expressive enough, and the logics and tools that we use to verify software are not mature enough, for this crisis to be behind us.