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Horror Stories
Java to the Rescue
Problems Remain in Java

Section 8.1

Introduction to Correctness and Robustness

A program is correct if it accomplishes the task that it was designed to perform. It is robust if it can handle illegal inputs and other unexpected situations in a reasonable way. For example, consider a program that is designed to read some numbers from the user and then print the same numbers in sorted order. The program is correct if it works for any set of input numbers. It is robust if it can also deal with non-numeric input by, for example, printing an error message and ignoring the bad input. A non-robust program might crash or give nonsensical output in the same circumstance.

Every program should be correct. (A sorting program that doesn't sort correctly is pretty useless.) It's not the case that every program needs to be completely robust. It depends on who will use it and how it will be used. For example, a small utility program that you write for your own use doesn't have to be particularly robust.

The question of correctness is actually more subtle than it might appear. A programmer works from a specification of what the program is supposed to do. The programmer's work is correct if the program meets its specification. But does that mean that the program itself is correct? What if the specification is incorrect or incomplete? A correct program should be a correct implementation of a complete and correct specification. The question is whether the specification correctly expresses the intention and desires of the people for whom the program is being written. This is a question that lies largely outside the domain of computer science.

8.1.1  Horror Stories

Most computer users have personal experience with programs that don't work or that crash. In many cases, such problems are just annoyances, but even on a personal computer there can be more serious consequences, such as lost work or lost money. When computers are given more important tasks, the consequences of failure can be proportionately more serious.

Just a few years ago, the failure of two multi-million space missions to Mars was prominent in the news. Both failures were probably due to software problems, but in both cases the problem was not with an incorrect program as such. In September 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter burned up in the Martian atmosphere because data that was expressed in English units of measurement (such as feet and pounds) was entered into a computer program that was designed to use metric units (such as centimeters and grams). A few months later, the Mars Polar Lander probably crashed because its software turned off its landing engines too soon. The program was supposed to detect the bump when the spacecraft landed and turn off the engines then. It has been determined that deployment of the landing gear might have jarred the spacecraft enough to activate the program, causing it to turn off the engines when the spacecraft was still in the air. The unpowered spacecraft would then have fallen to the Martian surface. A more robust system would have checked the altitude before turning off the engines!

There are many equally dramatic stories of problems caused by incorrect or poorly written software. Let's look at a few incidents recounted in the book Computer Ethics by Tom Forester and Perry Morrison. (This book covers various ethical issues in computing. It, or something like it, is essential reading for any student of computer science.)

In 1985 and 1986, one person was killed and several were injured by excess radiation, while undergoing radiation treatments by a mis-programmed computerized radiation machine. In another case, over a ten-year period ending in 1992, almost 1,000 cancer patients received radiation dosages that were 30% less than prescribed because of a programming error.

In 1985, a computer at the Bank of New York started destroying records of on-going security transactions because of an error in a program. It took less than 24 hours to fix the program, but by that time, the bank was out $5,000,000 in overnight interest payments on funds that it had to borrow to cover the problem.

The programming of the inertial guidance system of the F-16 fighter plane would have turned the plane upside-down when it crossed the equator, if the problem had not been discovered in simulation. The Mariner 18 space probe was lost because of an error in one line of a program. The Gemini V space capsule missed its scheduled landing target by a hundred miles, because a programmer forgot to take into account the rotation of the Earth.

In 1990, AT&T's long-distance telephone service was disrupted throughout the United States when a newly loaded computer program proved to contain a bug.

These are just a few examples. Software problems are all too common. As programmers, we need to understand why that is true and what can be done about it.

8.1.2  Java to the Rescue

Part of the problem, according to the inventors of Java, can be traced to programming languages themselves. Java was designed to provide some protection against certain types of errors. How can a language feature help prevent errors? Let's look at a few examples.

Early programming languages did not require variables to be declared. In such languages, when a variable name is used in a program, the variable is created automatically. You might consider this more convenient than having to declare every variable explicitly. But there is an unfortunate consequence: An inadvertent spelling error might introduce an extra variable that you had no intention of creating. This type of error was responsible, according to one famous story, for yet another lost spacecraft. In the FORTRAN programming language, the command "DO 20 I = 1,5" is the first statement of a counting loop. Now, spaces are insignificant in FORTRAN, so this is equivalent to "DO20I=1,5". On the other hand, the command "DO20I=1.5", with a period instead of a comma, is an assignment statement that assigns the value 1.5 to the variable DO20I. Supposedly, the inadvertent substitution of a period for a comma in a statement of this type caused a rocket to blow up on take-off. Because FORTRAN doesn't require variables to be declared, the compiler would be happy to accept the statement "DO20I=1.5." It would just create a new variable named DO20I. If FORTRAN required variables to be declared, the compiler would have complained that the variable DO20I was undeclared.

While most programming languages today do require variables to be declared, there are other features in common programming languages that can cause problems. Java has eliminated some of these features. Some people complain that this makes Java less efficient and less powerful. While there is some justice in this criticism, the increase in security and robustness is probably worth the cost in most circumstances. The best defense against some types of errors is to design a programming language in which the errors are impossible. In other cases, where the error can't be completely eliminated, the language can be designed so that when the error does occur, it will automatically be detected. This will at least prevent the error from causing further harm, and it will alert the programmer that there is a bug that needs fixing. Let's look at a few cases where the designers of Java have taken these approaches.

An array is created with a certain number of locations, numbered from zero up to some specified maximum index. It is an error to try to use an array location that is outside of the specified range. In Java, any attempt to do so is detected automatically by the system. In some other languages, such as C and C++, it's up to the programmer to make sure that the index is within the legal range. Suppose that an array, A, has three locations, A[0], A[1], and A[2]. Then A[3], A[4], and so on refer to memory locations beyond the end of the array. In Java, an attempt to store data in A[3] will be detected. The program will be terminated (unless the error is "caught", as discussed in Section 3.7). In C or C++, the computer will just go ahead and store the data in memory that is not part of the array. Since there is no telling what that memory location is being used for, the result will be unpredictable. The consequences could be much more serious than a terminated program. (See, for example, the discussion of buffer overflow errors later in this section.)

Pointers are a notorious source of programming errors. In Java, a variable of object type holds either a pointer to an object or the special value null. Any attempt to use a null value as if it were a pointer to an actual object will be detected by the system. In some other languages, again, it's up to the programmer to avoid such null pointer errors. In my old Macintosh computer, a null pointer was actually implemented as if it were a pointer to memory location zero. A program could use a null pointer to change values stored in memory near location zero. Unfortunately, the Macintosh stored important system data in those locations. Changing that data could cause the whole system to crash, a consequence more severe than a single failed program.

Another type of pointer error occurs when a pointer value is pointing to an object of the wrong type or to a segment of memory that does not even hold a valid object at all. These types of errors are impossible in Java, which does not allow programmers to manipulate pointers directly. In other languages, it is possible to set a pointer to point, essentially, to any location in memory. If this is done incorrectly, then using the pointer can have unpredictable results.

Another type of error that cannot occur in Java is a memory leak. In Java, once there are no longer any pointers that refer to an object, that object is "garbage collected" so that the memory that it occupied can be reused. In other languages, it is the programmer's responsibility to return unused memory to the system. If the programmer fails to do this, unused memory can build up, leaving less memory for programs and data. There is a story that many common programs for older Windows computers had so many memory leaks that the computer would run out of memory after a few days of use and would have to be restarted.

Many programs have been found to suffer from buffer overflow errors. Buffer overflow errors often make the news because they are responsible for many network security problems. When one computer receives data from another computer over a network, that data is stored in a buffer. The buffer is just a segment of memory that has been allocated by a program to hold data that it expects to receive. A buffer overflow occurs when more data is received than will fit in the buffer. The question is, what happens then? If the error is detected by the program or by the networking software, then the only thing that has happened is a failed network data transmission. The real problem occurs when the software does not properly detect buffer overflows. In that case, the software continues to store data in memory even after the buffer is filled, and the extra data goes into some part of memory that was not allocated by the program as part of the buffer. That memory might be in use for some other purpose. It might contain important data. It might even contain part of the program itself. This is where the real security issues come in. Suppose that a buffer overflow causes part of a program to be replaced with extra data received over a network. When the computer goes to execute the part of the program that was replaced, it's actually executing data that was received from another computer. That data could be anything. It could be a program that crashes the computer or takes it over. A malicious programmer who finds a convenient buffer overflow error in networking software can try to exploit that error to trick other computers into executing his programs.

For software written completely in Java, buffer overflow errors are impossible. The language simply does not provide any way to store data into memory that has not been properly allocated. To do that, you would need a pointer that points to unallocated memory or you would have to refer to an array location that lies outside the range allocated for the array. As explained above, neither of these is possible in Java. (However, there could conceivably still be errors in Java's standard classes, since some of the methods in these classes are actually written in the C programming language rather than in Java.)

It's clear that language design can help prevent errors or detect them when they occur. Doing so involves restricting what a programmer is allowed to do. Or it requires tests, such as checking whether a pointer is null, that take some extra processing time. Some programmers feel that the sacrifice of power and efficiency is too high a price to pay for the extra security. In some applications, this is true. However, there are many situations where safety and security are primary considerations. Java is designed for such situations.

8.1.3  Problems Remain in Java

There is one area where the designers of Java chose not to detect errors automatically: numerical computations. In Java, a value of type int is represented as a 32-bit binary number. With 32 bits, it's possible to represent a little over four billion different values. The values of type int range from -2147483648 to 2147483647. What happens when the result of a computation lies outside this range? For example, what is 2147483647 + 1? And what is 2000000000 * 2? The mathematically correct result in each case cannot be represented as a value of type int. These are examples of integer overflow. In most cases, integer overflow should be considered an error. However, Java does not automatically detect such errors. For example, it will compute the value of 2147483647 + 1 to be the negative number, -2147483648. (What happens is that any extra bits beyond the 32-nd bit in the correct answer are discarded. Values greater than 2147483647 will "wrap around" to negative values. Mathematically speaking, the result is always "correct modulo 232".)

For example, consider the 3N+1 program, which was discussed in Subsection 3.2.2. Starting from a positive integer N, the program computes a certain sequence of integers:

while ( N != 1 ) {
   if ( N % 2 == 0 )  // If N is even...
      N = N / 2;
      N = 3 * N + 1;

But there is a problem here: If N is too large, then the value of 3*N+1 will not be mathematically correct because of integer overflow. The problem arises whenever 3*N+1 > 2147483647, that is when N > 2147483646/3. For a completely correct program, we should check for this possibility before computing 3*N+1:

while ( N != 1 ) {
   if ( N % 2 == 0 )  // If N is even...
      N = N / 2;
   else {
      if (N > 2147483646/3) {
         System.out.println("Sorry, but the value of N has become");
         System.out.println("too large for your computer!");
      N = 3 * N + 1;

The problem here is not that the original algorithm for computing 3N+1 sequences was wrong. The problem is that it just can't be correctly implemented using 32-bit integers. Many programs ignore this type of problem. But integer overflow errors have been responsible for their share of serious computer failures, and a completely robust program should take the possibility of integer overflow into account. (The infamous "Y2K" bug was, in fact, just this sort of error.)

For numbers of type double, there are even more problems. There are still overflow errors, which occur when the result of a computation is outside the range of values that can be represented as a value of type double. This range extends up to about 1.7 times 10 to the power 308. Numbers beyond this range do not "wrap around" to negative values. Instead, they are represented by special values that have no real numerical equivalent. The special values Double.POSITIVE_INFINITY and Double.NEGATIVE_INFINITY represent numbers outside the range of legal values. For example, 20 * 1e308 is computed to be Double.POSITIVE_INFINITY. Another special value of type double, Double.NaN, represents an illegal or undefined result. ("NaN" stands for "Not a Number".) For example, the result of dividing by zero or taking the square root of a negative number is Double.NaN. You can test whether a number x is this special non-a-number value by calling the boolean-valued function Double.isNaN(x).

For real numbers, there is the added complication that most real numbers can only be represented approximately on a computer. A real number can have an infinite number of digits after the decimal point. A value of type double is only accurate to about 15 digits. The real number 1/3, for example, is the repeating decimal 0.333333333333..., and there is no way to represent it exactly using a finite number of digits. Computations with real numbers generally involve a loss of accuracy. In fact, if care is not exercised, the result of a large number of such computations might be completely wrong! There is a whole field of computer science, known as numerical analysis, which is devoted to studying algorithms that manipulate real numbers.

So you see that not all possible errors are avoided or detected automatically in Java. Furthermore, even when an error is detected automatically, the system's default response is to report the error and terminate the program. This is hardly robust behavior! So, a Java programmer still needs to learn techniques for avoiding and dealing with errors. These are the main topics of the rest of this chapter.

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