CSC 161 Grinnell College Spring, 2010
 
Imperative Problem Solving and Data Structures
 

Program Correctness and Program Testing

Abstract

This reading discusses several elements of program correctness and testing:

Introduction

We begin with a short program and simple question: Is the following program correct?

   /* a simple C program */
   #include <stdio.h>
   
   /* Declare conversion constant */
   /* const tells C compiler this variable may not be changed */
   const float CONVERSION_FACTOR = (float) 1.056710;   /*quarts to liters */
   
   int main()
   {
     /* input */
     float quarts, liters;
     printf ("Enter a value:  ");
     scanf ("%f", &quarts);
   
     /* process value read */
     liters = quarts / CONVERSION_FACTOR;
   
     /* output */
     printf ("Result: %f quarts = %f liters\n", quarts, liters);
   
     return 0;
   }

The answer is "Maybe — the program may or may not be correct"; to expand, the correctness of this program depends upon what problem is to be solved.

The program is correct, IF

However, the program is incorrect otherwise:

Point: Discussions about problem solving and the correction of solutions depend upon a careful specification of the problem.

Pre- and Post-Conditions

In order to solve any problem, the first step always should be to develop a clear statement of what initial information may be available and what results are wanted. For complex problems, this problem clarification may require extensive research, ending in a detailed document of requirements. (I know of one commercial product, for example, where the requirements documents filled 3 dozen notebooks and occupied about 6 feet of shelf space.) Even for simple problems, we need to know what is expected.

Within the context of introductory courses, assignments often give reasonably complete statements of the problems under consideration, and a student may not need to devote much time to determining just what needs to be done. In real applications, however, software developers may spend considerable time and energy working to understand the various activities that must be integrated into an overall package and to explore the needed capabilities.

Once an overall problem is clarified, a natural approach in Scheme or C programming is to divide the work into various segments — often involving multiple procedures or functions. For each code segment, procedure, or function, we need to understand the nature of the information we will be given at the start and what is required of our final results. Conditions upon initial data and final results are called pre-conditions and post-conditions, respectively.

More generally, an assertion is a statement about variables at a specified point in processing. Thus, a pre-condition is an assertion about variable values at the start of processing, and a post-condition is an assertion at the end of a code segment.

It is good programming style to state the pre- and post-conditions for each procedure or function as comments.

Pre- and Post-Conditions as a Contract

One can think of pre- and post-conditions as a type of contract between the developer of a code segment or function and the user of that function.

As with a contract, pre- and post-conditions also have implications concerning who to blame if something goes wrong.

Example: The Bisection Method

Suppose we are given a continuous function f, and we want to approximate a value r where f(r)=0. While this can be a difficult problem in general, suppose that we can guess two points a and b (perhaps from a graph) where f(a) and f(b) have opposite signs. The four possible cases are shown below:

four cases for the bisection method

We are given a and b for which f(a) and f(b) have opposite signs. Thus, we can infer that a root r must lie in the interval [a, b]. In one step, we can cut this interval in half as follows. If f(a) and f(m) have opposite signs, then r must lie in the interval [a, m]; otherwise, r must lie in the interval [m, b].

Finding Square Roots

As a special case, consider the function f(x) = x2 - a. A root of this function occurs when a = x2, or x = sqrt(a). Thus, we can use the above algorithm to compute the square root of a non-negative number. A simple program using this bisection method follows:

   /* Bisection Method for Finding the Square Root of a Positive Number */

   #include <stdio.h>

   int main () {
     /*  pre-conditions:  t will be a positive number
      * post-conditions:  code will print an approximation of the square root of t
      */
   
     double t;        /* we approximate the square root of this number */
     double a, b, m;  /* the desired root will be in interval [a,b] with midpoint m */
     double fa, fb, fm;  /* for f(x) = x^2 - t, the values f(a), f(b), f(m), resp. */
     double accuracy = 0.0001;  /* desired accuracy of result */
     
     /* Getting started */
     printf ("Program to compute a square root\n");
     printf ("Enter positive number: ");
     scanf ("%lf", &t);
   
     /* set up initial interval for the bisection method */
     a = 0;
     if (t < 2.0)
       b = 2.0;
     else
       b = t;
   
     fa = a*a - t;
     fb = b*b - t;
   
     while (b - a > accuracy) {
       m = (a + b) / 2.0;  /* m is the midpoint of [a,b] */
       fm = m*m - t;
       if (fm == 0.0) break;  /* stop loop if we have the exact root */
   
       if ((fa * fm) < 0.0) { /* check if f(a) and f(m) have opposite signs */
         b = m;
         fb = fm;
       }
       else {
         a = m;
         fa = fm;
       }
     }

     printf ("The square root of %lf is approximately %lf\n", t, m);
     return 0;
   }

As this program indicates, the program assumes that we are finding the square root of a positive number: thus, a pre-condition for this code is that the data entered will be a positive number. At the end, the program prints an approximation to a square root, and this is stated as a post-condition.

To Test Pre-Conditions or Not?

Although the user of a function has the responsibility for meeting its pre-conditions, computer scientists continue to debate whether functions should check that the pre-conditions actually are met. Here, in summary, are the two arguments.

Actual practice tends to acknowledge both perspectives in differing contexts. More checking is done when applications are more critical. As an extreme example, in software to launch a missile or administer drugs to a patient, software may perform extensive tests of correctness before taking an action — the cost of checking may be much less than the consequences resulting from unmet pre-conditions.

As a less extreme position, it is common to check pre-conditions once — especially when checking is relatively easy and quick, but not to check repeatedly when the results of a check can be inferred.

The assert function in C

At various points in processing, we may want to check that various pre-conditions or assertions are being met. C's assert function serves this purpose.

The assert function takes a Boolean expression as a parameter. If the expression is true, processing continues as planned. However, if the expression is false, assert discovers the undesired condition, and processing is halted with an error message.

For our square root example, two types of assertions initially come to mind.

The following version of the root-finding program adds assertion statements to check both of these conditions.

   /* Bisection Method for Finding the Square Root of a Positive Number */

   #include <stdio.h>
   #include <assert.h>

   int main () {
     /*  pre-conditions:  t will be a positive number
      * post-conditions:  code will print an approximation of the square root of t
      */

     double t;        /* we approximate the square root of this number */
     double a, b, m;  /* the desired root will be in interval [a,b] with midpoint m */
     double fa, fb, fm;  /* for f(x) = x^2 - t, the values f(a), f(b), f(m), resp. */
     double accuracy = 0.0001;  /* desired accuracy of result */
  
     /* Getting started */
     printf ("Program to compute a square root\n");
     printf ("Enter positive number: ");
     scanf ("%lf", &t);
     assert (t > 0);

     /* set up initial interval for the bisection method */
     a = 0;
     if (t < 2.0)
       b = 2.0;
     else
       b = t;

     fa = a*a - t;
     fb = b*b - t;

     while (b - a > accuracy) {
       assert (fa * fb < 0);  /* x^2 - t must have opposite signs at a and b */
    
       m = (a + b) / 2.0;  /* m is the midpoint of [a,b] */
       fm = m*m - t;
       if (fm == 0.0) break;  /* stop loop if we have the exact root */

       if ((fa * fm) < 0.0) { /* check if f(a) and f(m) have opposite signs */
         b = m;
         fb = fm;
       }
       else {
         a = m;
         fa = fm;
       }
     }

     printf ("The square root of %lf is approximately %lf\n", t, m);

   }

When a user runs this program entering the value 2, the program runs normally and prints:

   The square root of 2.000000 is approximately 1.414246

However, when a user runs the program with -2, the program stops abruptly, printing:

   square-root-assert: square-root-assert.c:20: main: Assertion `t > 0' failed.
   Aborted

A "Testing" Frame of Mind

Once we know what a program is supposed to do, we must consider how we know whether it does its job. There are two basic approaches:

Although a very powerful and productive technique, formal verification suffers from several practical difficulties:

Altogether, for many programs and in many environments, we often try to infer the correctness of programs through testing. However, it is only possible to test all possible cases for only the simplest programs. Even for our relatively-simple program to find square roots, we cannot practically try all possible positive, double-precision numbers as input.

Our challenge for testing, therefore, is to select test cases that have strong potential to identify any errors. The goal of testing is not to show the program is correct — there are too many possibilities. Rather, the goal of testing is to locate errors. In developing tests, we need to be creative in trying to break the code; how can we uncover an error?

Choosing Testing Cases

As we have discussed, our challenge in selecting tests for a program centers on how to locate errors. Two ways to start look at the problem specifications and at the details of the code:

A list of potential situations together with specific test data that check each of those situations is called a test plan.

A Sample Test Plan

To be more specific, let's consider how we might select test cases for the square-root function.

Putting these situations together, we seem to test the various parts of the code with these test cases:

Each of these situations examines a different part of typical processing. More generally, before testing begins, we should identify different types of circumstances that might occur. Once these circumstances are determined, we should construct test data for each situation, so that our testing will cover a full range of possibilities.

Debugging

While the initial running of a program has been known to produce helpful and correct results, your past programming experience probably suggests that some errors usually arise somewhere in the problem-solving process. Specifications may be incomplete or inaccurate, algorithms may contain flaws, or the coding process may be incorrect. Edsger Dijkstra, a very distinguished computer scientist, once observed¹ that in most disciplines such difficulties are called errors or mistakes, but that in computing this terminology is usually softened, and flaws are called bugs. (It seems that people are often more willing to tolerate errors in computer programs than in other products.)²

Novice programmers sometimes approach the task of finding and correcting an error by trial and error, making successive small changes in the source code ("tweaking" it), and reloading and re-testing it after each change, without giving much thought to the probable cause of the error or to how making the change will affect its operation. This approach to debugging is ineffective, for two reasons:

A much more time-efficient approach to debugging is to examine exactly what code is doing. While a variety of tools can help you analyze code, a primary technique involves carefully tracing through what a procedure is actually doing. We will discuss various approaches for code tracing and analysis throughout the semester.

Testing with I/O Redirection

Once we have identified test cases, we need an efficient way to do our testing. When we first start writing and checking code, we can run some cases as we develop our code. However, this can be tedious when testing requires extensive data. An alternative approach places the data for a test run in a file and then we run the program instructing the computer to use the file for its input.

Placing the anticipated input in a file is straightforward. We think through what we will type at a terminal window, line-by-line. We type exactly the same characters, line-by-line, into the file. For our square-root function this is particularly easy; we just type one number in a file. For example, suppose file-1 contains one line:

   1.44

To use this input file, we need a short digression regarding Gnu/Linux. Within a Gnu/Linux system, there are 3 standard "files" that are always open:

GNU/Linux allows us to reassign any of these files (also called channels) elsewhere. The mechanics are straightforward. Suppose we have compile square-root.c to the file square-root. From our experience with C, we run the program regularly with the command line:

   ./square-root

To "redirect" input, so that input will be read from file-1, the new command line becomes:

   ./square-root < file-1

With this new command line, the program's output (including the user prompt) continues to be printed at the terminal. However, the input is read from the file. Although this example is remarkably modest with just one line of input, a similar approach works for dozens or hundreds of lines of data.

Although not needed here, we note for future reference that GNU/Linux also allows us to redirect output:

   ./square-root > file-out

Here the program will read data from the keyboard but all output goes to file-out. GNU/Linux also allows both input and output redirection:

   ./square-root < file-1 > file-out

in which all input is read from file-1 and all output goes to file-out.

Testing with a Shell Script

Although input redirection can help for a single test run, sometimes it would be helpful to automate multiple test runs. For example, suppose we have five files (file-1, ..., file-5) with input data. We then could run our five test cases at the terminal window with these commands:

   ./square-root < file-1
   ./square-root < file-2
   ./square-root < file-3
   ./square-root < file-4
   ./square-root < file-5

GNU/Linux allows automation of these lines as follows:

With this approach, the computer successively runs each test, printing output to the terminal. With one command, we run the entire suite of tests.

Finally, GNU/Linux allows us to place program input within a test script, using the << operator. For example, consider the command:

   ./square-root << !
   1.44
   !

In the first line, << indicates that program input will follow on subsequent lines, and "!" indicates that the input will continue until the symbol "!" appears at the start of a new line. With this framework, the second line gives the data (1.44), and the "!" in the third line indicates all input data have been entered.

With this additional capability, a full testing script for square-root might have the form:

   ./square-root << !
   0.25
   !
   ./square-root << !
   1
   !
   ./square-root << !
   1.44
   !
   ./square-root << !
   9
   !
   ./square-root << !
   16
   !

Notes

  1. Edsger Dijkstra, "On the Cruelty of Really Teaching Computer Science," Communications of the ACM, Volume 32, Number 12, December 1989, p. 1402.
  2. Paragraph modified from Henry M. Walker, The Limits of Computing, Jones and Bartlett, 1994, p. 6.

This document is available on the World Wide Web as

http://www.cs.grinnell.edu/~walker/courses/161.sp09/readings/reading-testing.shtml

created 18 May 2008 by Henry M. Walker
last revised 7 February 2010
Valid HTML 4.01! Valid CSS!
For more information, please contact Henry M. Walker at walker@cs.grinnell.edu.