Saturday, 18 March 2017

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

Often I end up dealing with code that works but might not be of the highest quality. While quality is subjective I like to use the idea of "code smell" to convey what I mean, these are a list of indicators that, in total, help to identify code that might benefit from some improvement.

Such smells may include:
  • Complex code lacking comments on intended operation
  • Code lacking API documentation comments especially for interfaces used outside the local module
  • Not following style guide
  • Inconsistent style
  • Inconsistent indentation
  • Poorly structured code
  • Overly long functions
  • Excessive use of pre-processor
  • Many nested loops and control flow clauses
  • Excessive numbers of parameters
I am most certainly not alone in using this approach and Fowler et al have covered this subject in the literature much better than I can here. One point I will raise though is some programmers dismiss code that exhibits these traits as "legacy" and immediately suggest a fresh implementation. There are varying opinions on when a rewrite is the appropriate solution from never to always but in my experience making the old working code smell nice is almost always less effort and risk than a re-write.


When I come across smelly code, and I decide it is worthwhile improving it, I often discover the biggest smell is lack of test coverage. Now do remember this is just one code smell and on its own might not be indicative, my experience is smelly code seldom has effective test coverage while fresh code often does.

Test coverage is generally understood to be the percentage of source code lines and decision paths used when instrumented code is exercised by a set of tests. Like many metrics developer tools produce, "coverage percentage" is often misused by managers as a proxy for code quality. Both Fowler and Marick have written about this but sufficient to say that for a developer test coverage is a useful tool but should not be misapplied.

Although refactoring without tests is possible the chances for unintended consequences are proportionally higher. I often approach such a refactor by enumerating all the callers and constructing a description of the used interface beforehand and check that that interface is not broken by the refactor. At which point is is probably worth writing a unit test to automate the checks.

Because of this I have changed my approach to such refactoring to start by ensuring there is at least basic API code coverage. This may not yield the fashionable 85% coverage target but is useful and may be extended later if desired.

It is widely known and equally widely ignored that for maximum effectiveness unit tests must be run frequently and developers take action to rectify failures promptly. A test that is not being run or acted upon is a waste of resources both to implement and maintain which might be better spent elsewhere.

For projects I contribute to frequently I try to ensure that the CI system is running the coverage target, and hence the unit tests, which automatically ensures any test breaking changes will be highlighted promptly. I believe the slight extra overhead of executing the instrumented tests is repaid by having the coverage metrics available to the developers to aid in spotting areas with inadequate tests.


A short example will help illustrate my point. When a web browser receives an object over HTTP the server can supply a MIME type in a content-type header that helps the browser interpret the resource. However this meta-data is often problematic (sorry that should read "a misleading lie") so the actual content must be examined to get a better answer for the user. This is known as mime sniffing and of course there is a living specification.

The source code that provides this API (Linked to it rather than included for brevity) has a few smells:
  • Very few comments of any type
  • The API are not all well documented in its header
  • A lot of global context
  • Local static strings which should be in the global string table
  • Pre-processor use
  • Several long functions
  • Exposed API has many parameters
  • Exposed API uses complex objects
  • The git log shows the code has not been significantly updated since its implementation in 2011 but the spec has.
  • No test coverage
While some of these are obvious the non-use of the global string table and the API complexity needed detailed knowledge of the codebase, just to highlight how subjective the sniff test can be. There is also one huge air freshener in all of this which definitely comes from experience and that is the modules author. Their name at the top of this would ordinarily be cause for me to move on, but I needed an example!

First thing to check is the API use

$ git grep -i -e mimesniff_compute_effective_type --or -e mimesniff_init --or -e mimesniff_fini
content/hlcache.c:              error = mimesniff_compute_effective_type(handle, NULL, 0,
content/hlcache.c:              error = mimesniff_compute_effective_type(handle,
content/hlcache.c:              error = mimesniff_compute_effective_type(handle,
content/mimesniff.c:nserror mimesniff_init(void)
content/mimesniff.c:void mimesniff_fini(void)
content/mimesniff.c:nserror mimesniff_compute_effective_type(llcache_handle *handle,
content/mimesniff.h:nserror mimesniff_compute_effective_type(struct llcache_handle *handle,
content/mimesniff.h:nserror mimesniff_init(void);
content/mimesniff.h:void mimesniff_fini(void);
desktop/netsurf.c:      ret = mimesniff_init();
desktop/netsurf.c:      mimesniff_fini();

This immediately shows me that this API is used in only a very small area, this is often not the case but the general approach still applies.

After a little investigation the usage is effectively that the mimesniff_init API must be called before the mimesniff_compute_effective_type API and the mimesniff_fini releases the initialised resources.

A simple test case was added to cover the API, this exercised the behaviour both when the init was called before the computation and not. Also some simple tests for a limited number of well behaved inputs.

By changing to using the global string table the initialisation and finalisation API can be removed altogether along with a large amount of global context and pre-processor macros. This single change removes a lot of smell from the module and raises test coverage both because the global string table already has good coverage and because there are now many fewer lines and conditionals to check in the mimesniff module.

I stopped the refactor at this point but were this more than an example I probably would have:
  • made the compute_effective_type interface simpler with fewer, simpler parameters
  • ensured a solid set of test inputs
  • examined using a fuzzer to get a better test corpus.
  • added documentation comments
  • updated the implementation to 2017 specification.


The approach examined here reduce the smell of code in an incremental, testable way to improve the codebase going forward. This is mainly necessary on larger complex codebases where technical debt and bit-rot are real issues that can quickly overwhelm a codebase if not kept in check.

This technique is subjective but helps a programmer to quantify and examine a piece of code in a structured fashion. However it is only a tool and should not be over applied nor used as a metric to proxy for code quality.

Monday, 13 February 2017

The minority yields to the majority!

Deng Xiaoping (who succeeded Mao) expounded this view and obviously did not depend on a minority to succeed. In open source software projects we often find ourselves implementing features of interest to a minority of users to keep our software relevant to a larger audience.

As previously mentioned I contribute to the NetSurf project and the browser natively supports numerous toolkits for numerous platforms. This produces many challenges in development to obtain the benefits of a more diverse user base. As part of the recent NetSurf developer weekend we took the opportunity to review all the frontends to make a decision on their future sustainability.

Each of the nine frontend toolkits were reviewed in turn and the results of that discussion published. This task was greatly eased because we we able to hold the discussion face to face, over time I have come to the conclusion some tasks in open source projects greatly benefit from this form of interaction.

Netsurf running on windows showing this blog post
Coding and day to day discussions around it can be easily accommodated va IRC and email. Decisions affecting a large area of code are much easier with the subtleties of direct interpersonal communication. An example of this is our decision to abandon the cocoa frontend (toolkit used on Mac OS X) against that to keep the windows frontend.

The cocoa frontend was implemented by Sven Weidauer in 2011, unfortunately Sven did not continue contributing to this frontend afterwards and it has become the responsibility of the core team to maintain. Because NetSuf has a comprehensive CI system that compiles the master branch on every commit any changes that negatively affected the cocoa frontend were immediately obvious.

Thus issues with the compilation were fixed promptly but because these fixes were only ever compile tested and at some point the Mac OS X build environments changed resulting in an application that crashes when used. Despite repeatedly asking for assistance to fix the cocoa frontend over the last eighteen months no one had come forward.

And when the topic was discussed amongst the developers it quickly became apparent that no one had any objections to removing the cocoa support. In contrast the windows frontend, which despite having many similar issues to cocoa, we decided to keep. These were almost immediate consensus on the decision, despite each individual prior to the discussion not advocating any position.

This was a single example but it highlights the benefits of a disparate development team having a physical meeting from time to time. However this was not the main point I wanted to discuss, this incident highlights that supporting a feature only useful to a minority of users can have a disproportionate cost.

The cost of a feature for an open source project is usually a collection of several factors:
Developer time
Arguably the greatest resource of a project is the time its developers can devote to it. Unless it is a very large, well supported project like the Kernel or libreoffice almost all developer time is voluntary.
Developer focus
Any given developer is likely to work on an area of code that interests them in preference to one that does not. This means if a developer must do work which does not interest them they may loose focus and not work on the project at all.
Developer skillset
A given developer may not have the skillset necessary to work on a feature, this is especially acute when considering minority platforms which often have very, very few skilled developers available.
Developer access
It should be obvious that software that only requires commodity hardware and software to develop is much cheaper than that which requires special hardware and software. To use our earlier example the cocoa frontend required an apple computer running MAC OS X to compile and test, this resource was very limited and the project only had access to two such systems via remote desktop. These systems also had to serve as CI builders and required physical system administration as they could not be virtualized.
Once a project releases useful software it generally gains users outside of the developers. Supporting users consumes developer time and generally causes them to focus on things other than code that interests them.

While most developers have enough pride in what they produce to fix bugs, users must always remember that the main freedom they get from OSS is they recived the code and can change it themselves, there is no requirement for a developer to do anything for them.
A project requires a website, code repository, wiki, CI systems etc. which must all be paid for. Netsurf for example is fortunate to have Pepperfish look after our website hosting at favorable rates, Mythic beasts provide exceptionally good rates for the CI system virtual machine along with hardware donations (our apple macs were donated by them) and Collabora for providing physical hosting for our virtual machine server.

Despite these incredibly good deals the project still spends around 200gbp (250usd) a year on overheads, these services obviously benefit the whole project including minority platforms but are generally donated by users of the more popular platforms.
The benefits of a feature are similarly varied:
Developer learning
A developer may implement a feature to allow them to learn a new technology or skill
Project diversity
A feature may mean the project gets built in a new environment which reveals issues or opportunities in unconnected code. For example the Debian OS is built on a variety of hardware platforms and sometimes reveals issues in software by compiling it on big endian systems. These issues are often underlying bugs that are causing errors which are simply not observed on a little endian platform.
More users
Gaining users of the software is often a benefit and although most OSS developers are contributing for personal reasons having their work appreciated by others is often a factor. This might be seen as the other side of the support cost.

In the end the maintainers of a project often have to consider all of these factors and more to arrive at a decision about a feature, especially those only useful to a minority of users. Such decisions are rarely taken lightly as they often remove another developers work and the question is often what would I think about my contributions being discarded?

As a postscript, if anyone is willing to pay the costs to maintain the NetSurf cocoa frontend I have not removed the code just yet.