Code Quality, Part II

I have been known to complain loudly when I see code that I feel should have been better before seeing the light of day. But what about my own code? Divinely inspired and bug free from day one? Not a chance!

With Gnumeric as the example, here is what we do to keep the bug count down.

  • Testing for past classes of errors. For example, we found errors in Gnumeric’s function help texts, such as referring to arguments that do not exist or not describing all the arguments. The solution was not only to fix the problems we found, but also to write a test that checks all the function help texts for this kind of errors. Sure enough, there were several more. They are gone now, and new ones will not creep in. We do not like to make the same mistake twice!
  • Use static code checkers. This means that we keep the warning count from “gcc -Wall” down so know nothing serious is being ignored. We have looked at c-lang and Coverity output and fixing the apparent problems. (Those tools have pretty high false report rates, though.) We occasionally use sparse too and have a handful of dumb perl scripts looking for things like GObject destroy/finalize/etc handlers that fail to chain up to the parent class.
  • Use run-time code checkers. Gnumeric has been run through Valgrind and Purify any numbers of times. It is part of the test suite, so it happens regularly. This is regrettably getting harder because newer versions of Gtk+ and the libraries upon which it is built hold on to more and more memory with no way of forcing release. Glib has a built-in checker for some memory problems. We use that too.
  • Automated tests of as many part of the program as we have found time to write. The key word here is “automated”. I used to be somewhat scared of changing the format string (number rendering) code, because there was basically no way of making sure no new errors were introduced in that hairy piece of code. With the extensive test suite, I have no such reservations anymore.
  • Fuzzing, i.e., deliberately throwing garbled input at the program. I wrote tools to do this subtly for xml and files inside a zip archive in such a way that the files are still syntactically correct xml or zip files — otherwise you end up only testing the xml/zip parser which is fine, but not sufficient.
  • Google for Gnumeric. Not every will report problems to us, but they might discuss issues with others. Google seems to be pretty good at finding such occurrences.

The take-home message from this is that code quality is work. Lots of work. And yet we still let mistakes through. I blame that on the lack of a proper QA department.

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