Todays Software

Software is an integral part of our life today. It has been a complete success story in the second half of the 20th century and it continous in the 21st. Software is indispensable in flight control, aerospace, financial world, telecommunication, research etc. Now smartphones have pentrated the worlds population. And the world with aoutonomous software controlled cars is not very far.

Even with todays technology to develop software, bugs are an integral part of software. Half of the effort to produce software goes into the construction of the software and the other half goes into finding (hopefully) most of the bugs in the software before the user runs into some of the remaining bugs. Unfortunately some severe accidents have happened because of bugs in the software. Viruses can exploit security bugs in a software to do their bad business.

There is a popular saying attributed to Edsger Dijkstra: "If debugging is the activity to remove bugs from the software then programming must be the activity to introduce them".

And the name bug gives some false associations. It makes the impression as if bugs creep secretely into the software while the programmer is not looking at it.

And since software construction is a terribly complex task it seems to be inevitable that bugs are within any software system since programmers are human beings which commit errors when confronted with complex tasks.

In the 1960s the term software crisis had been invented to describe the problem. Since then science has invested a lot of effort to find methods to build correct software. The so called formal methods said that it is possible to write software which is correct by construction.

The Start of Formal Methods

Robert Floyd and Tony Hoare did some pioneering work in that area. Floyd observed that by attaching assertions to edges of a flow graph he can start to reason about software by logic.

Tony Hoare described in his foundational paper "The axiomatic basis of computer programming" how a language consisting of assignment, alternative command and while loops can be given rules which can be used to prove the correctness of programs written in this language.

There are certainly more authors who proposed similar ideas. But Robert Floyd and Tony Hoare are today the most cited in that area.

So in academia the idea of writing software which is correct by construction started to gain some momentum.

Edsger Dijkstra used the foundations of Tony Hoare to invent the so called weakest precondition calculus. He and others started to teach this method to students who learned to write correct algorithms.

David Gries wrote the text book "The science of programming" describing the method in a manner that it can be used by undergraduate students. In this textbook he expressed the idea that the method is so powerful that soon more and more programs will be written by using the method to prove software correct. But we all know that this had not happened (at least up to now).

Drawbacks of the Early Formal Methods

Tony Hoare in his 1967 paper already mentioned that it might be difficult to use the method in practice.

However, program proving, certainly at present, will be difficult even for programmers of high caliber; and may be applicable only to quite simple program designs.

I.e. proving software to be correct requires some skills in logical reasoning which are not addressed sufficiently in the formation of software developers.

However Dijkstra and Gries proved that the method is teachable with success even to undergraduate students.

But there is another serious problem. Software of significant size is not static. There are frequent changes during the development and the maintenance process. Any change requires that a correctness proof has to be redone to prove that no bugs creeped into the software. By doing proofs with paper and pencil, this is practially impossible or more correctly: requires an enormous effort to do it.

From that experience we can conclude that formal methods can be used efficiently only if a programming language is used which allows to express the operational software and its correctness proofs.

The Available Tools

There are many tools available on the market to write correctness proofs for software. The most prominent tools are Coq and Isabelle. Others are Idris, Agda, etc.

In Coq it is possible to write functional software and prove correctness properties about that software. The functions defined in Coq can be exported to a programming language like Ocaml and then compiled to native machine code.

There are some heroic efforts to use Coq to construct real world software. The most prominent one is Compcert which is a completely verified C compiler.

This proves the claim that it is possible to write formally verified code by using todays tools. But there is not yet a widespread use of the tools. Why?

  • Using a tool like Coq or Isabelle requires skills and both tools have a steep learnig curve. Only very few software developer are able and have enough patience to acquire these skills.

  • Most of the todays tools use constructive logic which is for many software developers counterintuitive.

  • You cannot generate compiled code directly from the languages. You have to go via some intermediate language. But the data types used e.g. in Coq (like natural numbers) cannot be transferred easily to the intermediate language.

  • The tools usually only support functional and not imperative programs. Generating verified imperative code (which is necessary in some cases) requires some other intermediate steps which are not easy to do.

Summary: Using formal methods to generate correct software is possible for real world software projects. But the price to pay in terms of skill development and intermediate steps is still too high.

The Albatross Project

The Albatross programming language with its compiler and verifier tries to bridge the remaining gaps and shoots at making verification an everyday task in software development.

Its goal is to make software verification available for the masses.

The Albatross compiler has an integrated proof engine which lifts the burden detailed proof steps off the user. The proof engine can do many proof steps automatically and the developer just has to state the desired properties. Clearly complex algorithms still require some deep thinking. However straightforward code should work just out of the box.

The modularity of the language allows to do complicated code and the corresponding proofs within the implementation part and the user can use the exported functions and properties in his application code.

There is no intermediate language (at least not visible to the developer) to compile to. All the glueing of the semantics of the Albatross language and the semantics of the target language is hidden to the user.

Albatross allows to write functional, imperative and concurrent code within the same language. Its syntax is similar to mainstream object oriented languages familiar to todays programmers.

The project is still in its development phase. Therefore not all functionality is yet available. But the target is to make a programming language which is general purpose, easy to use and fully verified.

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