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Towards Bug-Free Code

The only way to have bug-free code is to mathematically prove the code. Very few programs in the world are mathematically proved. Some industry can afford the price of a mathematical proof, especially when bugs would turn into human death, such as embedded software in planes, trains or cars. Most of us are working on projects that cannot afford the cost of a mathematical proof. We then rely on some tricks to maintain our bug rate as low as possible. I classify these tricks into 6 categories.

  • Contract
  • Automatic test
  • Empirical approach
  • Code review
  • Prioritizing bugs fix over new features development
  • Programming style and code quality
  • Static Analysis Tools


The idea of contracts is to insert correctness information inside the code. When contract is violated it means that your code contains a bug somewhere. Typically, the .NET world is very poor in terms of contracts. Our only way to express contract is to use the System.Diagnostics.Debug.Assert(…) method. This is very unfortunate because not only our code is blurred with numerous Debug.Assert(…) calls, but also the compilers cannot check contracts at compile-time. For example the Spec# non-nullable types is an excellent form of contract at language level that help a lot avoiding pesky NullReferenceException. And Spec# is far from being the only language that propose contract facilities, think about what Eiffel proposed more than twenty years ago in terms of contract! 

As I believe in contract, I personally use a lot Debug.Assert(…). This represents around 15% of my code. I will likely blog more on this because with all the buzz actually made around automatic tests, I feel that contracts should deserve more attention.

Automatic test

I won’t enumerate the numerous benefits of automatic tests and high code coverage ratio
here. The important thing to remember is that having a solid battery of automatic tests is an excellent way to decrease significantly the bug rate on tested code, but also to avoid new bugs when code gets refactored. As many, my opinion is that the cost of writing automatic tests is worth the price compared to the cost of maintaining not automatically tested code.

Empirical approach

What I call empirical approach is a simple tenet that every seasoned programmer know:

  • Most of bugs in a new version are coming from modified code and brand new code
  • Unchanged code that works well for a long time in production won’t likely crash within the next release (what we call stable code). We don’t say that stable code don’t contain bug, but discovering a bug in stable code is rare.

How do you know that some code works well for a long time in production? Simply by listening to users. If they didn’t report problems on some features for a long time then you can be confident that underlying code is stable. Some might say that I consider here users as testers but don’t take me wrong, we don’t have the choice. If you have real users, they will complain when they will find a bug and they will remain silent when they consider that the product is working fine. You are responsible to deliver correct code that will satisfy users but why wouldn’t you infer statistics from their feedbacks to assess where is your stable/unstable code?

I wrote an article about how we (the NDepend team) use this simple but effective idea and our own dog-food to avoid regression bugs while adding new features. Basically we focus our code reviews mainly on code that have been added or code that have been changed since the last release and of course.

Code review

Code reviews are good to enhance quality and to educate programmers but I don’t believe in the efficiency of code reviews to anticipate bugs. Even though some portions of code can be fascinating to read, the bulk of a code base is tedious and will make you lose your focus in less than an hour. The problem of code review comes from the mass of code to read. This is why I advise to only focus your review on not stable code, i.e added code and modified code. If you release new versions often, the mass of code to review before each release will quickly become an epsilon of the size of your entire code base. Doing so can also be seen as a way to capitalize on code reviews made during previous iterations.

Prioritizing bugs fix over new features development

This popular methodology directly results from the concept of stable code. Prioritizing bugs fix over new features development can be seen as a way to constantly struggle to maximize the surface of stable code in our code base.

Programming style and code quality 

The recent buzz around LINQ or F# comes from the fact that object style programming is more bug-prone than functional style programming. This fact results from the expressiveness of functional style. In other words, functional code is easier to read and understand. A major aspect of the expressiveness of functional programming style is IMHO the concept of immutability that I described in a previous blog post Immutable types:understand their benefits and use them. That’s a fact, it is hard to write, understand and maintain code that mutates states at runtime (for example this is why global variables are so harmful). And this becomes much harder in concurrent environment.

Obviously, code quality has also a direct impact on code correctness. Anti-pattern such as methods with high LOC, high Cyclomatic Complexity or high Nesting Depth, entangled components, methods with multiple concerns, classes with multiple responsibilities… leads to code harder to debug and to test.

Static Analysis Tools

We all dream of a static analyzer that could pinpoint automatically bugs in our code by just pushing an Analyze button. Some tools are already able to detect naïve mistakes, such as calling a method with a null reference as parameters where there are no tests of parameter nullity (i.e interprocedural analysis).

But most bugs are not that easy to pinpoint. By just analyzing the code a tool cannot distinguish between a feature and a bug because it doesn’t know how the application should behave. Some heuristic exists but still, to be efficient, a bug finder static analyzer needs to be feed with more information than just the code. Typically, this extra information can be found in contracts and unit-tests code. As far as I know, in the .NET area there are 2 projects revolving around this idea NStatic and Pex, and I am really looking forward to use them on my own code.


From what I understand from the agile trend, having a bug-free product to release shouldn’t be the goal. Anyway, every program not mathematically proved has bugs. The goal should then be to tend toward a bug-free product by applying as many correctness
tricks as possible.

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  • http://www.commongenius.com David Nelson

    “If you have real users, they will complain when they will find a bug and they will remain silent when they consider that the product is working fine.”

    If only that were true! The lesson I have learned from supporting end-user applications is that you have to do everything you can to make sure that you are notified automatically when something goes wrong. You cannot rely on your users to tell you, because more often than not they will simply suffer through it and/or search for a way around the problem; only if a bug actually blocks them from doing their job will they bother reporting it.

  • http://www.NDepend.com Patrick Smacchia

    Yes, Spec# is mentionned.
    Raffles, any tool to recommend? (even outside the .NET world)

  • Raffles

    Regarding the usefulness of static analysis, there are two points worth making. Firstly its true that vanilla static analysis finds run-time bugs (null pointer dereferences, array bounds overruns, uninitialised memory reads etc.), but it’s worth noting that 1. these are generally the bugs with the worst symptoms (often program termination), 2. these are the most common types of bug. In a typical development you can expect to find around twice as many run-time bugs as functional defects. 3. a key benefit of static analysis is that it will search through paths which your tests don’t cover and which are hard to spot by inspection (speaking from experience here!) so you can remove bugs on paths which you wouldn’t otherwise know were there until the end user comes back to you with a bug report.

    Secondly, static anlysis tools can do even better if you have contracts in your code. Now they can find functional defects too, because you told the tool something about how the code is supposed to work. A lot of you are asking for contracts in a mainstream language. I’m not a .net developer myself, but have any of you guys looked at spec# (mentioned in the main article)? This is basically an enhanced version of C# so the cost of “learning a new language” is low:

    “Spec# is a programming language with specification language features that extends the capabilities of the C# programming language with Eiffel-like contracts, including object invariants, preconditions and post-conditions. Like ESC/Java, it includes a static checking tool based on a theorem prover that is able to statically verify many of these invariants. It also includes a variety of other minor extensions to the language, such as non-null reference types.”

  • http://radio.javaranch.com/ilja Ilja Preuß

    “The only way to have bug-free code is to mathematically prove the code.” – Only if you can prove that your prove is correct. Do I smell an endless recursion? 😉

    “Prioritizing bugs fix over new features development” – Lean Software Development is taking this even one step further with the “stop the line” approach: you not only prioritize bug fixes over new development, the whole team also analyses why the bug was introduced in the first place and fixes the root cause.

  • Who Cares

    “Bug Free” and “code” can not be used in same sentence without the word “not”. Remember, Every program has atleast one more bug.

    Jokes aside, good article.

  • http://www.NDepend.com Patrick Smacchia

    I understand your point Steve but adapting to a new language comes at a high cost:

    Education and market of programmers. And who wants to be an expert in Cobra when most of job offers ask for C#/VB.NET/Java expert?

    Legacy code. Most of us work on C# or VB.NET project and we are reluctant to migration. Developers with MS techno still remeber the trauma it was to migrate from unmanaged to managed.

    But don’t take me wrong: it is great and sane that some new languages are challenging the well-established ones. It is just that the inertie is high.

  • Steve Thompson

    “what I want is DbC in the mainstream, in C# and VB.NET syntax and compiler.”

    Me too. Unfortunately, as I see it, there are two problems:
    1) I’m tired of waiting. Since Eiffel I have waited for another language to support DbC. There have been some attempts, but they were always things like adding attributes to code that translated into assertions, or there were little caveats like ‘doesn’t work with inheritance like it should’. Cobra, since it is a .Net language, seems like the perfect solution in which to write reusable DbC verified assemblies at the very least, where correctness is (in my mind) paramount.
    2) Quite frankly, I’m a bit tired of the one file for code, one file for unit test division with tools like NUnit, JUnit, TestNG, et al. Cobra’s idea of making it easy to declare unit tests near the code itself is supposed to mean that I will be more likely to do it (according to its author) and I believe that this is indeed the case.
    3) With C# this isn’t so much the case, but with VB.Net in particular, I find that the verbosity of the syntax really gets in the way of easy visual inspection. It took me a little bit of time to come up to speed with Cobra, but the syntax is incredibly spartan and reads quite well.

    We can talk about having such features in the ‘mainstream’ where they do not exist, or we can simply use a language that supports them today. It never hurts to take a pragmatic look at the situation :-)

  • http://www.NDepend.com Patrick Smacchia

    Thanks Steve for the tips,
    it is interesting but the bulk of my code is written in C#,
    what I want is DbC in the mainstream, in C# and VB.NET syntax and compiler.

  • Joe Chung

    “Beware of bugs in the above code; I have only proved it correct, not tried it.” -Donald Knuth

  • Steve Thompson

    For Design by Contract, unit testing, asserts, and simplicity of expression, I would encourage you to have a look at the Cobra programming language, as I am now:


    The author has made it possible to easily include full Eiffel DbC into his language. In addition, unit tests can be specified at varying levels. I think that these two properties do much to help in the development of correct code.



  • http://robzyc.spaces.live.com Rob

    A good read, and looking forward to reading more on how you work with contracts and Debug.Assert. I am looking to become more agile and keen to see as much of what other people are doing as possible!

    Thanks again,