While rigorous peer reviews can catch many defects, some misuses of language are easy for humans to miss but straightforward for a static checking tool to find. Failing to use a static checking tool exposes software to a needless risk of defects. Ignoring or accepting the presence of large numbers of warnings similarly exposes software to needless risk of defects.
- Using a static checking tool that has been configured to automatically check as many coding guideline violations as practicable. For automotive applications, following all or almost all (with defined and justified exceptions) of the MISRA C coding standard rules is an accepted practice.
- Ensuring that code checks “clean,” meaning that there are no static checking violations.
- In rare instances in which a coding rule violation has been formally approved, use pragmas to formally document the deviation and direct the static checking tool not to issue a warning.
Static checking tools look for suspicious coding structures and data use within a piece of software. Traditionally, they look for things that are “warnings” instead of errors. The distinction is that an error prevents the compiler from being able to generate code that will run. In contrast, a warning is an instance in which code can be compiled, but in which there is a substantial likelihood that the code the compiler generates will not actually do what the designer wants it to do. Reasons for a warning might include ambiguities in the language standard (the code does something, but it’s unclear whether what it does is what the language standard meant), gaps in the language standard (the code does something arbitrary because the language standard does not standardize behavior for this case), and dangerous coding practices (the code does something that is probably a bad idea to attempt). In other words, warnings point out potential code defects. Static analysis capabilities vary depending upon the tool, but in general are all designed to help find instances of poor use of a programming language and violations of coding rules.
An analogous example to a static checking tool is the Microsoft Word grammar assistant. It tells you when it thinks a phrase is incorrect or awkward, even if all the words are spelled correctly. This is a loose analogy because creativity in expression is important for some writing. But safety critical computer code (and English-language writing describing the details of how such systems work) is better off being methodical, regular, and precise, rather than creatively expressed but ambiguous.
Static checking tools are an important way of checking for coding style violations. They are particularly effective at finding language use that is ambiguous or dangerous. While not every instance of a static checking tool warning means that there is an actual software defect, each warning given means that there is the potential for a defect. Accepted practice for high quality software (especially safety critical software) is to eliminate all warnings so that the code checks “clean.” The reasons for this include the following. A warning may seem to be OK when examined, but might become a bug in the context of other changes made to the code later. A multitude of warnings that have been investigated and deemed acceptable may obscure the appearance of a new warning that indicates an actual bug. The reviewer may not understand some subtle language-dependent aspect of a warning, and thus think things are OK when they are actually not.
MISRA Guidelines require the use of “automatic static analysis” for SIL 3 automotive systems and above, which tend to be systems that can kill or severely injure at least one person if they fail (MISRA Guidelines, pg. 29). The guidelines also give this guidance: “188.8.131.52 Static analysis is effective in demonstrating that a program is well structured with respect to its control, data, and information flow. It can also assist in assessing its functional consistency with its specification.”
McConnell says: “Heed your compiler's warnings. Many modern compilers tell you when you have different numeric types in the same expression. Pay attention! Every programmer has been asked at one time or another to help someone track down a pesky error, only to find that the compiler had warned about the error all along. Top programmers fix their code to eliminate all compiler warnings. It's easier to let the compiler do the work than to do it yourself.” (McConnell, pg. 237, emphasis added).
- McConnell, Code Complete, Microsoft Press, 1993.
- MISRA, (MISRA C), Guideline for the use of the C Language in Vehicle Based Software, April 1998.
- MISRA, Development Guidelines for Vehicle Based Software, November 1994 (PDF version 1.1, January 2001).
- (See also posting on Coding Style Guidelines and MISRA C)