Monday, August 11, 2014

Coding Style Guidelines and MISRA C

Critical embedded software should follow a well-defined set of coding guidelines, enforced with comprehensive static checking tools, with essentially no deviations. MISRA C is an example of an accepted set of such coding guidelines.

Coding style guidelines exist to make it more difficult to make mistakes, and also to make it easier to detect when mistakes have been made. Failing to establish or follow formal, written coding guidelines makes it more difficult to understand code, leading to less effective code reviews and a reasonable expectation of increased levels of software defects. Failing to follow the language usage rules defined by a coding style guideline leads to using the language in a way that can normally be expected to result in poorly defined or incorrect software behaviors, increases the risk of software defects.

Accepted Practices:

  • All projects should follow a written coding style guideline document.
  • Coding guidelines should address formatting, commenting, name use, and other similar topics.
  • Coding guidelines should address good language usage practices to create understandable code and reduce the chance of introducing software defects.
  • Coding guidelines should specifically address which language features and usage patterns should be avoided as being error-prone, dangerous, or undefined by the language standard.
  • Coding guidelines should be followed with essentially no exception. Exceptions should require formal review with written approval and annotations in the source code. If guidelines are inappropriate, the guidelines should be changed.

Style in software can be considered analogous to style in writing. Compilers enforce some basic programming language construction rules that allow the source code to be compiled into executable software. Style, on the other hand, has more to do with how ideas are expressed within the constraints of the programming language used. Some style considerations have to do with variable naming conventions, indentation, and physical organization aspects of lines of code. Other style considerations have to do with the use of the programming language itself. Some constructs in a programming language are ambiguous or easily misunderstood. And some constructions in software, while correct in terms of language definition, are very likely to indicate a software defect.

A classic example of a subtle defect in the C programming language is:
“if (x = y) { …}”   The programmer almost always means to compare “x” and “y” for equality, but the C programming language is defined such that this code instead copies the value of “y” into “x” and then tests to see if the result of that copy operation was non-zero. The correct code would be “if (x == y) { … }” which adds a second “=” to make the operation a comparison instead of an assignment operation. Using “=” instead of “==” in conditionals is a common mistake when creating C programs, easy to confuse visually, and is therefore prohibited by typical style guidelines even though the single “=” version of the code is a valid language construct. A loose analogy might be a prohibition against using multiple negatives in an English language sentence because it is too difficult to not not not not not not (sic) make a mistake with such a sentence even though the meaning is unambiguous if the sentence is carefully (and correctly) analyzed.

It is accepted practice to have a defined set of coding guidelines that cover all relevant aspects of programming language use. Such guidelines are typically tailored for each project, but once defined should be followed rigorously. Guidelines typically cover code formatting, commenting, use of names, language use conventions, and other relevant aspects. While guidelines can be tailored per project, there are nonetheless a number of generally accepted practices for reducing the chance of software defects (such as forbidding a single “=” in a conditional evaluation as just discussed).

Of particular concern in safety critical software are language use rules to avoid ambiguity and hazardous language constructs. It is a generally accepted practice to outright ban hazardous and error-prone language structures to avoid the chance of defects, even if doing so makes software a bit less convenient to write and those structures would otherwise be a legal use of the language. In other words, an essential aspect of coding style for safety critical systems is outlawing code structures that are technically valid but are too dangerous or error-prone to use. The result is a written document that defines coding style in general, and language usage rules in particular. These rules must be applied rigorously and with essentially no exceptions. (The “no exceptions” part is feasible because it is acceptable to tailor the rules to the particular project. So it is not a matter of applying arbitrary rules and making exceptions, but rather picking rules that make sense for the situation and then rigorously sticking to them.) In short, every safety critical software project must have a coding style guide and must follow it rigorously to achieve acceptable levels of safety.

It is often the case that it makes sense to adopt an existing set of language use rules rather than make up your own. The MISRA C set of coding rules was specifically created for safety critical automotive software, and is the most well known C programming language subset for safety critical software. A typical practice when writing safety critical C code is to start with MISRA C, create a defined set of which rules will be followed (usually this is almost all of them), and then follow those rules rigorously. Exceptions to adopted rules should be very few, granted only after a formal written review process, and documented in the code as to the type of exception and reason for granting it. Preferably, automated tools (widely available for MISRA C as discussed in Jones 2002, pg. 56) are used to enforce the rules in addition to a required peer review of code.

It is accepted practice to adopt new coding style rules when better practices come into use, and apply those coding style rules to existing code when that code is being updated and incorporated into a new product.

Selected Sources:
The MISRA C guidelines (MISRA C 1998) are specifically designed for safety critical systems at SIL 2 and above. (MISRA Report 2 p. ix) They consist of a list of rules about coding practices to use and practices to avoid. They concentrate primarily on language use rather than code formatting. While MISRA C was originally developed for automotive applications, it was being set forth as a more general standard for adoption in other domains by 2002 (e.g., Jones 2002).  Over time, MISRA C has transition beyond just automotive applications to mainstream use for high integrity software in other areas. A predecessor of MISRA C is the list of rules in the book Safer C (Hatton, 1995).

More general coding style guidelines abound. It is easy to find a coding style guideline that can be adapted for the specifics of a project. Examples include chapter 18 of McConnell (1993).

NASA says that it is important that all levels of the project agree to the coding standards, and that they are enforced.   (NASA 2004 pg. 146)

Enforcing coding style involves the use of static checking in addition to formal peer reviews. Beyond the general consensus in the software community that following a defined coding style is a good idea, Nagappan and Ball found that “there exists a strong positive correlation between the static analysis defect density and the pre-release defect density determined by testing. Further, the predicted pre-release defect density and the actual pre-release defect density are strongly correlated at a high degree of statistical significance.” (Nagappan 2005, abstract)  In other words, modules that fail to follow a coding style as determined by static analysis have more bugs.

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 1993, pg. 237).

MISRA Software 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 1994, pg. 29). The guidelines also give this guidance: “ 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.” IEC 61508 highly recommends (which more or less means “requires” as an accepted practice) static analysis at SIL 2 and above (IEC 61508-3 pg. 83).

Finally, an automotive manufacturer has published data showing that they expect one “major bug” for every 30 coding rule violations (Kawana 2004):

(Figure from Kawana 2004)

Note: As with my other posts in the last few months this was written regarding practices about a decade ago. There are newer sources for coding style information available now such as an updated version of MISRA C. There is also the the ISO-26262 standard, which is intended to replace the MISRA software guidelines..  But we'll save discussing those for another time.


  • Hatton, Les, Safer C, 1995.
  • Jones, N., MISRA C guidelines, Embedded Systems Programming, Beginner’s Corner, July 2002, pp. 55-56.
  • Kawana et al., Empirical Approach for Reliability Assurance of Vehicle Software, Automotive Software Workshop, San Diego, 2004.
  • 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).
  • MISRA, Report 2: Integrity, February 1995.
  • Nagappan & Ball, Static analysis tools as early indicators of pre-release defect density, International Conference on Software Engineering, 2005, pp. 580-586.


  1. Well, as I understood the new standard 26262 addresses the complete life cycle of a critical system. Ensuring the safety in the software development is only one part of the complete life cycle. The main idea of the software part is applying unit testing for each function and module and recommending to deploy model based SW methodology which is supported by tools that are capable to generate standard code like SisraC. I am not aware if the standard 26262 provides CODING guidelines as MisraC does (can you provide me any link?). Correct me if I am wrong!

  2. This article was written regarding how things looked about a decade ago (there is a later posting explaining the context, which is the Toyota UA litigation). ISO 26262 is a newer approach, and model based design with generated code does change the situation in some respects. At the very least, if a human is actually going to be working with the lines of code then using an appropriate style guideline for the code they actually see/need to understand matters. And many of the MISRA C guidelines are really there to deal with compiler ambiguities. Whether the code is model-based or not, that doesn't change that compilers do unspecified things with some code structures. Beyond that, there is plenty of non-model-generated code (including code blogs someone puts into the model) and style guidelines such as the newer version of MISRA C matter a lot for human-relevant code. So I'd say this is a whole blog posting/set that I'll put on my queue for when I get a chance. Thanks for the comment.


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