Software bug explained

A software bug is the common term used to describe an error, flaw, mistake, failure, or fault in a computer program or system that produces an incorrect or unexpected result, or causes it to behave in unintended ways. Most bugs arise from mistakes and errors made by people in either a program's source code or its design, and a few are caused by compilers producing incorrect code. A program that contains a large number of bugs, and/or bugs that seriously interfere with its functionality, is said to be buggy. Reports detailing bugs in a program are commonly known as bug reports, fault reports, problem reports, trouble reports, change requests, and so forth.

Bugs trigger errors that can in turn have a wide variety of ripple effects, with varying levels of inconvenience to the user of the program. Some bugs have only a subtle effect on the program's functionality, and may thus lie undetected for a long time. More serious bugs may cause the program to crash or freeze leading to a denial of service. Others qualify as security bugs and might for example enable a malicious user to bypass access controls in order to obtain unauthorized privileges.

The results of bugs may be extremely serious. Bugs in the code controlling the Therac-25 radiation therapy machine were directly responsible for some patient deaths in the 1980s. In 1996, the European Space Agency's US$1 billion prototype Ariane 5 rocket was destroyed less than a minute after launch, due to a bug in the on-board guidance computer program. In June 1994, a Royal Air Force Chinook crashed into the Mull of Kintyre, killing 29. This was initially dismissed as pilot error, but an investigation by Computer Weekly uncovered sufficient evidence to convince a House of Lords inquiry that it may have been caused by a software bug in the aircraft's engine control computer.[1]

In 2002, a study commissioned by the US Department of Commerce' National Institute of Standards and Technology concluded that software bugs, or errors, are so prevalent and so detrimental that they cost the US economy an estimated $59 billion annually, or about 0.6 percent of the gross domestic product.[2]


The concept that software might contain errors dates back to 1843 in Ada Byron's notes on the analytical engine in which she speaks of the difficulty of preparing program 'cards' for Charles Babbage's Analytical engine:

Use of the term "bug" to describe inexplicable defects has been a part of engineering jargon for many decades and predates computers and computer software; it may have originally been used in hardware engineering to describe mechanical malfunctions. For instance, Thomas Edison wrote the following words in a letter to an associate in 1878:

Baffle Ball, the first mechanical pinball game, was advertised as being "free of bugs" in 1931.[3] Problems with military gear during World War II were referred to as bugs (or glitches).[4]

The term "bug" was used in an account by computer pioneer Grace Hopper, who publicized the cause of a malfunction in an early electromechanical computer.[5] A typical version of the story is given by this quote:[6]

Hopper was not actually the one who found the insect, as she readily acknowledged. The date in the log book was 9 September 1947,[7] [8] although sometimes erroneously reported as 1945.[9] The operators who did find it, including William "Bill" Burke, later of the Naval Weapons Laboratory, Dahlgren, Virginia,[10] were familiar with the engineering term and, amused, kept the insect with the notation "First actual case of bug being found." Hopper loved to recount the story.[11] This log book is on display in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, complete with moth attached.[8]

While it is certain that the Harvard Mark II operators did not coin the term "bug", it has been suggested that the incident contributed to the widespread use and acceptance of the term within the computer software lexicon. It was thought that they did coin the related term, "debug" though this is unlikely, since the Oxford English Dictionary entry for "debug" contains a use of "debugging" in the context of air-plane engines in 1945. See: debugging.

How bugs get into software

In software development projects, a ‘mistake’ or ‘fault’ can be committed at any stage during development. Bugs are a consequence of the nature of human factors in the programming task. They arise from oversights or mutual misunderstandings made by a software team during specification, design, coding, data entry and documentation. For example: In creating a relatively simple program to sort a list of words into alphabetical order, one's design might fail to consider what should happen when a word contains a hyphen. Perhaps, when converting the abstract design into the chosen programming language, one might inadvertently create an off-by-one error and fail to sort the last word in the list. Finally, when typing the resulting program into the computer, one might accidentally type a '<' where a '>' was intended, perhaps resulting in the words being sorted into reverse alphabetical order. More complex bugs can arise from unintended interactions between different parts of a computer program. This frequently occurs because computer programs can be complex—millions of lines long in some cases—often having been programmed by many people over a great length of time, so that programmers are unable to mentally track every possible way in which parts can interact. Another category of bug called a race condition comes about either when a process is running in more than one thread or two or more processes run simultaneously, and the exact order of execution of the critical sequences of code have not been properly synchronized.

Mistake metamorphism

In software engineering, mistake metamorphism (from Greek meta = "change", morph = "form") refers to the evolution of a defect in the final stage of software deployment. A mistake metamorphism briefs out a "mistake" committed by an analyst in the early stages of the software development lifecycle, which leads to a "defect" in the final stage of the cycle.[12]

Different stages of a "mistake" in the entire cycle may be described by using the following terms:[12]


The software industry has put much effort into finding methods for preventing programmers from inadvertently introducing bugs while writing software.[13] [14] These include:

Programming style: While typos in the program code are often caught by the compiler, a bug usually appears when the programmer makes a logic error. Various innovations in programming style and defensive programming are designed to make these bugs less likely, or easier to spot. In some programming languages, so-called typos, especially of symbols or logical/mathematical operators, actually represent logic errors, since the mistyped constructs are accepted by the compiler with a meaning other than that which the programmer intended.
Programming techniques: Bugs often create inconsistencies in the internal data of a running program. Programs can be written to check the consistency of their own internal data while running. If an inconsistency is encountered, the program can immediately halt, so that the bug can be located and fixed. Alternatively, the program can simply inform the user, attempt to correct the inconsistency, and continue running.
Development methodologies: There are several schemes for managing programmer activity, so that fewer bugs are produced. Many of these fall under the discipline of software engineering (which addresses software design issues as well). For example, formal program specifications are used to state the exact behavior of programs, so that design bugs can be eliminated. Unfortunately, formal specifications are impractical or impossible for anything but the shortest programs, because of problems of combinatorial explosion and indeterminacy.
Programming language support: Programming languages often include features which help programmers prevent bugs, such as static type systems, restricted name spaces and modular programming, among others. For example, when a programmer writes (pseudocode) LET REAL_VALUE PI = "THREE AND A BIT", although this may be syntactically correct, the code fails a type check. Depending on the language and implementation, this may be caught by the compiler or at run-time. In addition, many recently-invented languages have deliberately excluded features which can easily lead to bugs, at the expense of making code slower than it need be: the general principle being that, because of Moore's law, computers get faster and software engineers get slower; it is almost always better to write simpler, slower code than "clever", inscrutable code, especially considering that maintenance cost is considerable. For example, the Java programming language does not support pointer arithmetic; implementations of some languages such as Pascal and scripting languages often have runtime bounds checking of arrays, at least in a debugging build.
Code analysis: Tools for code analysis help developers by inspecting the program text beyond the compiler's capabilities to spot potential problems. Although in general the problem of finding all programming errors given a specification is not solvable (see halting problem), these tools exploit the fact that human programmers tend to make the same kinds of mistakes when writing software.
Instrumentation: Tools to monitor the performance of the software as it is running, either specifically to find problems such as bottlenecks or to give assurance as to correct working, may be embedded in the code explicitly (perhaps as simple as a statement saying PRINT "I AM HERE"), or provided as tools. It is often a surprise to find where most of the time is taken by a piece of code, and this removal of assumptions might cause the code to be rewritten.


See main article: Debugging.

Finding and fixing bugs, or "debugging", has always been a major part of computer programming. Maurice Wilkes, an early computing pioneer, described his realization in the late 1940s that much of the rest of his life would be spent finding mistakes in his own programs.[15] As computer programs grow more complex, bugs become more common and difficult to fix. Often programmers spend more time and effort finding and fixing bugs than writing new code. Software testers are professionals whose primary task is to find bugs, or write code to support testing. On some projects, more resources can be spent on testing than in developing the program.

Usually, the most difficult part of debugging is finding the bug in the source code. Once it is found, correcting it is usually relatively easy. Programs known as debuggers exist to help programmers locate bugs by executing code line by line, watching variable values, and other features to observe program behavior. Without a debugger, code can be added so that messages or values can be written to a console (for example with printf in the C programming language) or to a window or log file to trace program execution or show values.

However, even with the aid of a debugger, locating bugs is something of an art. It is not uncommon for a bug in one section of a program to cause failures in a completely different section, thus making it especially difficult to track (for example, an error in a graphics rendering routine causing a file I/O routine to fail), in an apparently unrelated part of the system.

Sometimes, a bug is not an isolated flaw, but represents an error of thinking or planning on the part of the programmer. Such logic errors require a section of the program to be overhauled or rewritten. As a part of Code review, stepping through the code modelling the execution process in one's head or on paper can often find these errors without ever needing to reproduce the bug as such, if it can be shown there is some faulty logic in its implementation.

But more typically, the first step in locating a bug is to reproduce it reliably. Once the bug is reproduced, the programmer can use a debugger or some other tool to monitor the execution of the program in the faulty region, and find the point at which the program went astray.

It is not always easy to reproduce bugs. Some are triggered by inputs to the program which may be difficult for the programmer to re-create. One cause of the Therac-25 radiation machine deaths was a bug (specifically, a race condition) that occurred only when the machine operator very rapidly entered a treatment plan; it took days of practice to become able to do this, so the bug did not manifest in testing or when the manufacturer attempted to duplicate it. Other bugs may disappear when the program is run with a debugger; these are heisenbugs (humorously named after the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.)

Debugging is still a tedious task requiring considerable effort. Since the 1990s, particularly following the Ariane 5 Flight 501 disaster, there has been a renewed interest in the development of effective automated aids to debugging. For instance, methods of static code analysis by abstract interpretation have already made significant achievements, while still remaining much of a work in progress.

As with any creative act, sometimes a flash of inspiration will show a solution, but this is rare and, by definition, cannot be relied on.

There are also classes of bugs that have nothing to do with the code itself. If, for example, one relies on faulty documentation or hardware, the code may be written perfectly properly to what the documentation says, but the bug truly lies in the documentation or hardware, not the code. However, it is common to change the code instead of the other parts of the system, as the cost and time to change it is generally less. Embedded systems frequently have workarounds for hardware bugs, since to make a new version of a ROM is much cheaper than remanufacturing the hardware, especially if they are commodity items.

Bug management

It is common practice for software to be released with known bugs that are considered non-critical, that is, that do not affect most users' main experience with the product. While software products may, by definition, contain any number of unknown bugs, measurements during testing can provide an estimate of the number of likely bugs remaining; this becomes more reliable the longer a product is tested and developed ("if we had 200 bugs last week, we should have 100 this week"). Most big software projects maintain two lists of "known bugs"— those known to the software team, and those to be told to users. This is not dissimulation, but users are not concerned with the internal workings of the product. The second list informs users about bugs that are not fixed in the current release, or not fixed at all, and a workaround may be offered.

There are various reasons for not fixing bugs:

Given the above, it is often considered impossible to write completely bug-free software of any real complexity. So bugs are categorized by severity, and low-severity non-critical bugs are tolerated, as they do not affect the proper operation of the system for most users. NASA's SATC managed to reduce the number of errors to fewer than 0.1 per 1000 lines of code (SLOC) but this was not felt to be feasible for any real world projects.

The severity of a bug is not the same as its importance for fixing, and the two should be measured and managed separately. On a Microsoft Windows system a blue screen of death is rather severe, but if it only occurs in extreme circumstances, especially if they are well diagnosed and avoidable, it may be less important to fix than an icon not representing its function well, which though purely aesthetic may confuse thousands of users every single day. This balance, of course, depends on many factors; expert users have different expectations from novices, a niche market is different from a general consumer market, and so on. To better achieve this balance, some software developers use a formalized bug triage process (borrowing the medical term), in which each new bug is assigned a priority based on its severity, frequency, risk, and other predetermined factors.

A school of thought popularized by Eric S. Raymond as Linus's Law says that popular open-source software has more chance of having few or no bugs than other software, because "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow".[16] This assertion has been disputed, however: computer security specialist Elias Levy wrote that "it is easy to hide vulnerabilities in complex, little understood and undocumented source code," because, "even if people are reviewing the code, that doesn't mean they're qualified to do so."[17]

Like any other part of engineering management, bug management must be conducted carefully and intelligently because "what gets measured gets done"[18] and managing purely by bug counts can have unintended consequences. If, for example, developers are rewarded by the number of bugs they fix, they will naturally fix the easiest bugs first— leaving the hardest, and probably most risky or critical, to the last possible moment ("I only have one bug on my list but it says 'Make sun rise in West'"). If the management ethos is to reward the number of bugs fixed, then some developers may quickly write sloppy code knowing they can fix the bugs later and be rewarded for it, whereas careful, perhaps "slower" developers do not get rewarded for the bugs that were never there.

Security vulnerabilities

Malicious software may attempt to exploit known vulnerabilities in a system — which may or may not be bugs. Viruses are not bugs in themselves — they are typically programs that are doing precisely what they were designed to do. However, viruses are occasionally referred to as such in the popular press.

Common types of computer bugs

Arithmetic bugs

Logic bugs

Syntax bugs

Resource bugs

Multi-threading programming bugs

Interfacing bugs

Performance bugs

Teamworking bugs

Well-known bugs

See main article: List of software bugs. A number of software bugs have become well-known, usually due to their severity: examples include various space and military aircraft crashes. Possibly the most famous bug is the Year 2000 problem, also known as the Y2K bug, in which it was feared that worldwide economic collapse would happen at the start of the year 2000 as a result of computers thinking it was 1900. (In the end, no major problems occurred.)

In popular culture

See also

Further reading

External links

Notes and References

  1. The Chinook Helicopter Disaster
  2. Software bugs cost US economy dear
  3. Web site: Baffle Ball. Internet Pinball Database. (See image of advertisement in reference entry).
  4. News: Modern Aircraft Carriers are Result of 20 Years of Smart Experimentation. Life. 1942-06-29. November 17, 2011. 25.
  5. FCAT NRT Test. Harcourt. 18 March 2008.
  6. Web site: Danis, Sharron Ann: "Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper". 16 February 1997. 31 January 2010.
  7. "Bug", The Jargon File, ver. 4.4.7. Retrieved 3 June 2010.
  8. "Log Book With Computer Bug", National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
  9. "The First "Computer Bug", Naval Historical Center. But note the Harvard Mark II computer was not complete until the summer of 1947.
  10. IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Vol 22 Issue 1, 2000
  11. First Computer Bug
  12. Testing Experience. 2012. March. testingexperience. Germany. 42. 1866-5705.
  13. Book: Huizinga, Dorota. Kolawa, Adam. Automated Defect Prevention: Best Practices in Software Management. 2007. Wiley-IEEE Computer Society Press. 426. 0-470-04212-5.
  14. Book: McDonald, Marc. Musson, Robert; Smith, Ross. The Practical Guide to Defect Prevention. 2007. Microsoft Press. 480. 0-7356-2253-1.
  15. [q:Maurice Wilkes|Maurice Wilkes Quotes]
  16. "Release Early, Release Often"
  17. "Wide Open Source"
  18. What gets measured gets done. Smith. Mark. 8 April 2009. Cobalt Group.