The idea of CI and Engineering

In software development I see and interesting trend and push towards continuous integration, continually testing, and testing in production. These techniques are designed to allow faster feedback on errors, use real data for application testing, and to deliver features and changes faster.

But is that really how people use software on devices? When we consider an operation like google or amazon, this always online technique may work, but what happens when we apply a continous integration and “we’ll patch it later” mindset to devices like phones or internet of things?

What happens in other disciplines?

In real engineering disciplines like aviation or construction, techniques like this don’t really work. We don’t continually build bridges, then fix them when they break or collapse. There are people who provide formal analysis of materials, their characteristics. Engineers consider careful designs, constraints, loads and situations that may occur. The structure is planned, reviewed and verified mathematically. Procedures and oversight is applied to ensure correct building of the structure. Lessons are learnt from past failures and incidents and are applied into every layer of the design and construction process. Communication between engineers and many other people is critical to the process. Concerns are always addressed and managed.

The first thing to note is that if we just built lots of scale-model bridges and continually broke them until we found their limits, this would waste many resources to do this. Bridges are carefully planned and proven.

So whats the point with software?

Today we still have a mindset that continually breaking and building is a reasonable path to follow. It’s not! It means that the only way to achieve quality is to have a large test suite (requires people and time to write), which has to be further derived from failures (and those failures can negatively affect real people), then we have to apply large amounts of electrical energy to continually run the tests. The test suites can’t even guarantee complete coverage of all situations and occurances!

This puts CI techniques out of reach of many application developers due to time and energy (translated to dollars) limits. Services like travis on github certainly helps to lower the energy requirement, but it doesn’t stop the time and test writing requirements.

No matter how many tests we have for a program, if that program is written in C or something else, we continually see faults and security/stability issues in that software.

What if we CI on … a phone?

Today we even have hardware devices that are approached as though they “test in production” is a reasonable thing. It’s not! People don’t patch, telcos don’t allow updates out to users, and those that are aware, have to do custom rom deployment. This creates an odd dichomtemy of “haves” and “haves not”, of those in technical know how who have a better experience, and the “haves not” who have to suffer potentially insecure devices. This is especially terrifying given how deeply personal phones are.

This is a reality of our world. People do not patch. They do not patch phones, laptops, network devices and more. Even enterprises will avoid patching if possible. Rather than trying to shift the entire culture of humans to “update always”, we need to write software that can cope in harsh conditions, for long term. We only need to look to software in aviation to see we can absolutely achieve this!

What should we do?

I believe that for software developers to properly become software engineers we should look to engineers in civil and aviation industries. We need to apply:

  • Regualation and ethics (Safety of people is always first)
  • Formal verification
  • Consider all software will run long term (5+ years)
  • Improve team work and collaboration on designs and development

The reality of our world is people are deploying devices (routers, networks, phones, lights, laptops more …) where they may never be updated or patched in their service life. Even I’m guilty (I have a modem that’s been unpatched for about 6 years but it’s pretty locked down …). As a result we need to rely on proof that the device can not fail at build time, rather than patch it later which may never occur! Putting formal verification first, and always considering user safety and rights first, shifts a large burden to us in terms of time. But many tools (Coq, fstar, rust …) all make formal verification more accessible to use in our industry. Verifying our software is a far stronger assertion of quality than “throw tests at it and hope it works”.

Over time our industry will evolve, and it will become easier and more cost effective to formally verify than to operate and deploy CI. This doesn’t mean we don’t need tests - it means that the first line of quality should be in verification of correctness using formal techniques rather than using tests and CI to prove correct behaviour. Tests are certainly still required to assert further behavioural elements of software.

Conclusion

Over time our industry must evolve to put the safety of humans first. To achive this we must look to other safety driven cultures such as aviation and civil engineering. Only by learning from their strict disciplines and behaviours can we start to provide software that matches behavioural and quality expectations humans have.