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Why Software Really Fails And What to Do About It

When we visualize software as a machine, it becomes clear just how unwise it is to invent too much in a new software system. Picture the overall software as a factory assembly line of robots, or a new kind of automobile. The major software modules are sections of the factory, or important pieces of the automobile. The software subroutines are parts making up the larger mechanical components. Individual lines of source code are single pieces of metal in a robot, or springs, or gears, or levers. Function parameters are rods or lasers reaching into another mechanical subassembly. When the assembly line or car is started for the first time, the parts may not work together correctly. They may rub or bang into each other, preventing the whole machine from working right. This might occur in hundreds of places. Some problems may not be seen until a certain sequence of actions is attempted at the same time.

In the same way, a large software project is an incredibly complex machine, with millions of possible interactions among overlapping parts, compounded by interactions of the interactions. The full behavior of many software systems is well beyond human understanding. This is why we cannot accurately predict bugs in complex software; we are trying to build machines we cannot comprehend.

Oversimplifying a bit, there are two common approaches to software projects.

  1. Design and build software in a conservative manner, using tried-and-true components, assembled by a stable team of engineers, who have successfully built similar systems. These projects usually can be estimated accurately, and completed on time and budget.
  2. Attempt to create software that is substantially new. These are really research projects, not engineering endeavors. They have uncertain outcomes and no reliable time/cost estimates.

An example of #1 is the creation of a new compiler by a software development company that has produced many compilers for dozens of languages and target machines. When this company takes on a new compiler project, for a variation of an existing source language, with a carefully specified target instruction set, by an experienced team of compiler engineers, then this project has a high likelihood of success. Techniques such as reusable class libraries and design patterns help software projects conform to this model.

An example of #2 was the FBI's Virtual Case File, previously mentioned. No one had ever created a software system to perform the functions envisioned for it. Creating it was like trying to construct a wholly new type of machine, from a new kind of metal, using a yet-to-be-invented welding technique.

Either of these two approaches to software is valid. The key problem is that we take on projects like #2, but pretend they are like #1. This is what ails the world of software development.

We fool ourselves about how well we understand the complex new software machines we are trying to build. Just because we plan to code a new project in a known programming language, say Java, and our engineers are good at Java, this does not mean we have answers to all the challenges that will arise in the project. Using the mechanical analogy, just because our inventors have put together many machines that use springs and gear and levers, does not mean we can correctly build any machine using these parts. We can't have it both ways. If we want an accurate budget and completion time, we cannot engage in significant research during a software project. Conversely, there is nothing wrong with research and trial-and-error, but we should not think we know when it will be finished.

But what is the solution in the real world? Everyone would like to make software engineering as predictable as traditional engineering. There are many important pending software projects with large unknowns. We cannot simply say, "Oh, this software poses some new challenges, so let's give up." The solution is to get over our hubris that software development is some special kind of animal, unlike other engineering endeavors, and that we programmers are so much smarter than our traditional engineering brethren. Software is just a machine, and people have been building machines for a very long time.

To wit, here is my prescription for improving the success rate and reputation of software developers....

  • Stop fooling ourselves about how much we know and how clever we are. Large software projects are impossible to understand fully. No one can grasp all of the overlapping effects of each component. Picturing software as a physical machine helps to illuminate just how complex these systems are.

    In a large software project, there may be one person who fully understands each particular component, but that is a different person for each component. No one has a grasp of the whole system, and we have no way to meld isolated individual knowledge into a collective whole. This was precisely the problem with the embarrassing tale of the Metric-English measurement error on the Mars Climate Orbiter. (Wasting $300 million in taxpayer money.)

  • Incremental improvement to existing systems is good. Sometimes this means adding one additional feature to a working system. Sometimes it means combining two working systems with a new interface. And it is helpful if the interface method itself has been used elsewhere.

  • Iterative development is good. This applies the above principle, again and again, to one particular software system. The first release of the software does little more than say "Hello" to the user. The next release adds one basic feature. The next, one more, etc. The idea is that each software release only has one major problem to solve. If it does not work, there is one thing to fix. Each release is an incremental improvement to working software. In practice, of course, we may stretch a bit and include a few new features in each release, but we never attempt to create a huge, complex piece of software all at once. (See the Agile Manifesto.) The iterative approach also can be applied to estimating the size of software projects.

  • Research projects are great, but be honest about them. The Denver Airport software disaster, cited above, could have been avoided if it were handled in this way...

  • Admit that we don't know how to sort airline baggage automatically, but would like to solve this problem. Start such a research project in an empty warehouse, using a few conveyor belts, some bar-coded suitcases, and some sorting gates with embedded software. After working out the kinks, try the system at a small airport, for incoming flights from one other city. When that works, try it for all flights to this small airport. After success there, and further hardware/software refinements, create a similar system at a mid-size airport. Improve the hardware/software again. Install at several mid-size airports and fix any problems.

    Then you are finally in a position to say, "Let's think about handling baggage at a large airport this way."

Software development need not be a mystical process, undertaken only by the most brilliant, with no hope of predicting the outcome. Software is a machine, and over many years we have learned the principles of good machine design. Unfortunately, because software is so new and is impossible to see or touch, we get clouds in our eyes when we think about software projects. We forget that we know how to plan, design, and construct high-quality machines -- by incremental improvement to previous machines, using proven materials and methods.

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