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Last August, a note posted to firstname.lastname@example.org showed how user-mode code can crash a RISC (reduced instruction set) architecture machine. The program generated a string of random bytes and jumped into it. Further discussion showed that several RISC architectures could be crashed, but none of the CISC (complex...) architectures that were tried. One person, commenting on this, noted that one of the ways to speed up RISC architectures is to allow certain (possible) instruction sequences to have undefined behavior, and to let that behavior include "wedging" the machine. However, CISC architecture specifications make sure that every possible instruction (i.e., every pattern of bits that can be loaded into the instruction register) returns the machine to a known — viable — state. Something else to lose sleep over... Martin Minow
Although plain old hardcopy is often an excellent backup for reducing the RISKS of losing magnetic storage, it's not foolproof, as seen in this excerpt from the regular Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) space probe status bulletin: Voyager Mission Status Report September 7, 1990 Voyager 1 ...On August 27 Computer Command Subsystem A004 (CCSL A004) began execution. Upon arrival for the prime shift on August 27 it was discovered that five character printers in the real-time area were not printing due to one cause or another; four of the printers were either not loaded correctly or were configured in the "local" vs "online" mode and one printer had a paper jam. All of these printers were missing data since early August 25. One of the character printers that was not functioning was the General Science printer. The hard copy was needed for analysis of the PRA POR event. ...
The recent discussion of the apparent inherent dangers of digital control control systems reminds me of a story told in another context - but which I think embodies an interesting kernel of truth. If I remember right I heard this from Bill McKeeman a couple of years back. He was called in to consult on a bank account control system, the development of which was way behind schedule. In talking to the banking people, he discovered an interesting - if obvious in retrospect - dicotomy between computer people and business people. Computer people were impressed and happy with the generality and power of their systems. Hey, the same system they were using to manage bank accounts could be programmed to play space invaders! Neat, right? The bankers found this terrifying: If a system was general-purpose and that powerful, they didn't feel they could understand or control what it was doing to their bank accounts. McKeeman's approach was to come up with what I guess we'd today call an axiomatic/object-oriented approach: He designed a series of basic primitives to manipulate things like money, accounts, and so on. The primitives enforced, in a very transparent way, such basic "laws" as "the law of conservation of money": Money can be neither created nor destroyed, it can only be moved from place to place. The rest of the system was built on top of these primitives, and was apparently a great success. Now consider analogue and digital devices from the point of view of "laws". One reason analogue devices tend to have more predictable behavior is that their components follow fairly constrained physical laws - and, more important, these are laws that we understand at a deep level and can work with analytically. If the total energy stored in a system is less than 1 joule, no possible failure mode can release more than 1 joule. If that system is enclosed inside of something with a certain thermal mass, no failure mode can increase the temperature outside the enclosure by more than a certain amount. And so on. Where the inherent constraints are insufficient to guarantee safety, we can add constraints fairly easily. A governer can limit the maximum speed of a rotating element, hence indirectly such things as the energy in the system. There can certainly be catastrophic failures due to our failure to fully understand the system: We may only put a joule of energy in, but neglect the energy stored in a spring that was compressed during assembly. Let the pin holding the spring down fail and all of a sudden there may be a lot more than a joule in there. However, we have many years of experience building these kinds of systems, and we've seen most of these kinds of failures before. We also have a lot of experience making such failures very unlikely - and we can realistically compute what "very unlikely" means. General-purpose digital systems, on the other hand, are subject to no a priori conservation laws. If I show you all the lines of code of a program except for one and ask you to bound the value of a variable in the program, you can say nothing at all. Well, there are two exceptions, and they're instructive: If the variable isn't in scope at the hidden line, any bound you compute from the rest of the code is valid (at least in a language where you can guarantee that pointers aren't passed around arbitrarily). If the language supports variable declarations with bounds, AND guarantees to enforce them, then you also are obviously in good shape. (However, few languages do this.) This example may shed some light on why scope rules are so important: Our programming languages continue to emphasize power and generality, not conservation laws. Scope rules (and, every once in a while, bounded variable declarations with appropriate support) are about all our languages, as such, provide us with. Now, the algorithm being executed itself provides constraints. But there's a problem here: If the only source of constraints is the algorithm itself, an error can easily render both the algorithm and the constraint enforcement invalid. Constraints so closely tied to what is being constrained don't add safety. Relying on them is like relying on a system that suspends a weight on a string that can only hold five pounds and then saying "Well, it won't drop the weight because I KNOW that if the weight were heavier than five pounds the string would break." Instead, constraints have to be programmed in explicitly. This is all too rarely done: Because the underlying system is so general, there are just SO many constraints to check. In an analogue system, many of the constraints come free because of the physical laws governing the parts of the system. Beyond that, analogue systems are usually built of standardized parts - and those standardized parts are specified to obey certain fundamental constraints. We have relatively few standardized digital components, and often the constraints on them aren't very useful: They are themselves hard to check. — Jerry
Several correspondents have suggested that digital computers are less reliable than analog computers because of certain intrinsic properties of the two methods; for example, analog computing is more continuous, while digital computing is subject to arbitrary redirection at every step, also, the complexity of digital circuitry makes it more prone to failure. This is an interesting conjecture, but as stated it allows a confusion of design and implementation issues. Some analog realizations (cams, gears, relays with heavy armatures, etc.) do have certain reliability enhancing properties such as continuity of state during loss of drive power, or known reset states in the absence of power, but these properties do not extend to more common (and higher speed) analog realizations. Function for function, the design of a program that realizes a standard analog function, e.g., integration or filtering, is about as easy to get right as its analog counterpart, and its implementation in digital hardware may be even more reliable (considering, for example, drift and noise in analog electronic circuits and the sharing of services in multiple-function systems that is possible in digital designs). The real risk in using digital rather than analog computing may be that in pursuit of enhanced system functionality, one can easily introduce complex decision functions (with all their opportunity for design error) that would be infeasible in analog computers. In other words, the reliability benefit of analog design may be that it does not allow the designer to attempt more complex computing functions, with their possibilities for design error. But this limitation in computing functionality may place higher demands on human operators or limit the capabilities of safety systems, so one has to look at the larger picture.
In RISKS 10.34 Robert L. Smith claims that it is possible to be certain that a software bug has been eradicated without waiting for nonrecurrence, and cites an example where he traced a bug in a tablet input program to one line of code, which he removed, and now feels certain that the bug is gone. Obviously if we consider the trivial cases — 5 line class exercises and whatnot — we can KNOW a bug's gone. In slightly more complex cases where we nonetheless retain complete control over the code, we can stay pretty near certainty that a bug is gone. I'm sure most RISKS readers encounter this sort of thing weekly. You may not in all cases be absolutely certain you've fixed everthing wrong, but the RISK of missing something is deemed acceptable because further testing awaits. But now take the case of truly HUGE projects, and truly old ones: the fertile spawning grounds for RISKS incidents the world over. How can we be sure we have fixed a bug? Suppose a "J" appears somewhere in a report and they task me to fix it. I find a typo in someone's module, featuring just such an errant "J" in a constant string. I correct the line. Have I fixed the problem? Anyone who thinks they can be certain without rerunning the report is in the wrong line of work. I have seen the "impossible" happen with fair regularity! For instance: Yes I fixed the line in FROBOZZ.FTN, but what I didn't know is that FROBOZZ is automagically regenerated by a code generator once a month from a config file somewhere! Next month, the "bug" reappears. Or — I corrected my copy, but what I didn't know is that 6 other programmers have "boilerplated" from this code to do their own projects, so that not one but dozens of errant "J"'s appear in various reports. It's fine for me to feel righteous about having fixed the ONE instance originally noted, but when the customer keeps seeing "J" it's impossible to convince him we really fixed the bug! And so on -- a hundred ways for human nature to conquer seemingly iron clad programming "logic." That's why checking for nonrecurrence is the best way — prediction is great, but observation pays the bills.
My experience with "bit rot", where previously solved problems reappear, is that they are usually caused by poor configuration control. While most systems have CC tools, like sccs on UNIX or CMS on VAX/VMS, getting your friendly average programmer to use them is like pulling teeth. When management insists on use of the tools, you will find lots of log entries of the form: REV DATE USER COMMENTS 1.1 10/02/89 root 1.2 10/05/89 root ... ... It seems that the preferred way of working on a large system is to simply grab a complete copy of the source code (as root so that silly protection modes don't get in the way :-) and hack away. When you get several programmers working on a section of code (not at all uncommon), it's amazing that anything at all ever works. Add in the interaction of hardware CC with software CC and you have orders of magnitude more things that can go wrong. It's amazing the number of times that you find old software running on new hardware of vice versa. Solutions? Programmer education. Even more important is manager education, to eliminate the "It takes too much time" objection. Telling somebody at a salary review something like "We expect our
Software bugs "stay fixed" (again!)Martyn Thomas <email@example.com> Mon, 10 Sep 90 13:08:57 +0100In RISKS-10.34 Robert L. Smith <firstname.lastname@example.org> replies to my comments: : Mr. Thomas implies that it is impossible to be certain, other than by :nonrecurrence, that a nontrivial software bug is fixed. My experience :indicates otherwise. (... anecdote about a bug and its correction removed for brevity) : This is my point: I am as certain as a man can be that the noted :misbehavior will never recur in that program for that reason, ... ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ Here we have it. If the error is never reintroduced and if the distributed program is compiled from the corrected source code, then this instance of the incorrect behaviour will never recur. But what about the faulty thinking which led to the error in the first place? Is it an incorrect mental model of the design, which could have led to similar errors (with identical symptoms) elsewhere in the program? Is it a misunderstanding of the meaning of a programming construct or library call (which could also lead to other similar errors)? I believe that this is what Dave Parnas (RISKS 10:32) meant by "...if they were not *properly corrected* " (my emphasis). Note also "as certain as a man can be" above. Unfortunately people keep asking us to quantify this statement! But this thread has rather lost its way. It started through my attempt to counter Robert Smith's seeming argument that software was better than hardware for critical applications because hardware errors recur whilst software errors do not. Of course software doesn't display the failures that hardware does, through components wearing out, but that is a small consideration alongside the bigger issues of system complexity and costs.
Simulator classification as safety-criticalMartyn Thomas <email@example.com> Mon, 10 Sep 90 13:24:30 +0100In RISKS-10.32 Brinton Cooper <abc@BRL.MIL> writes: :Pete Mellor and Martyn Thomas agree that :<> You cannot expect crew to do better than their :<> training under the stress of an emergency. :Er...the crew are, after all, thinking humans and merely another set of :automatons in the system. A recent (past 5 years) air crash in the mid-US was :less disastrous than it might have been precisely because the pilot performed :beyond his training, in a situation which he had not been expected to :encounter. This is, after all, one of the differences between human and :machine. This is missing the point. Crew may indeed do better than their training, but it is surely unacceptable to use this as an argument that a flight simulator is not safety-critical. If the simulator trains behaviour which causes an accident, the accident is logically a consequence of the simulator design, not of the crew (who are behaving exactly as trained). Doesn't this make the simulator as critical as any cockpit system?
Re: Postscript virus (RISKS-10.32)Robert Trebor Woodhead <firstname.lastname@example.org> Mon, 10 Sep 90 13:35:08 JSTIn re: the alleged Postscript virus reported in the SJ Mercury. Rumors of this have been flying around the virus-hunter's network for some weeks now, and two separate vaccines have been developed; to wit, one that is added to the Laser Prep file on the Macintosh to disable the SETPASSWORD operator temporarily (until next reboot of the printer) and an after-the-fact password resetter that reads the old password from the EEPROM on the Laserwriter and uses it to reset the password (This works only on 68000 based Laserwriters, and probably only on ones using ADOBE PostScript. After much discussion, it was generally agreed upon that these tools would not be released except on an as-needed basis, for several reasons. Primary amoungst these is that nobody has yet come up with a confirmed sighting of the alleged poisoned clip-art; thus the scattered reports of malignant graphics could in fact be isolated cases of either weird machine messups, or some jerks just downloading a line or two of PostScript. However, it should be noted that the other major reason was that the cure may be worse than the disease, in that the number of reports of problems with Laserwriter passwords is so small that it would be dwarfed by the number of problems caused by improper installation and use of the cures, and additionally the cures can easily be perverted into new variants of the possibly spurious disease they were intended to cure. Robert J Woodhead, Biar Games, Inc. !uunet!biar!trebor trebor@biar.UUCP
Re: New Rogue Imperils Printers<email@example.com> Mon, 10 Sep 90 13:46:22 EDT>... PostScript, that "surreptitiously reprograms a chip inside the >printers, changing a seldom-used password stored there. When the >password is altered, ... the printer no longer functions properly." It's not entirely clear what is going on here — whether the code is simply doing a password change by virtue of knowing the old password or whether it's doing it by some sneak path — but it raises an interesting risk either way. The password on a PostScript printer (well, in the usual implementation) is a number. It protects certain parameters of the printer that user code really shouldn't change, like communications parameters and idle timeouts. There is considerable potential for malice in knowing the password, up to and including causing hardware damage of a minor sort (the EEPROM used to store printer parameters can be rewritten only a limited number of times due to wear-out processes in the chip). The default password as shipped is 0. Very few printer owners bother to change this. The problem is that there is significant incentive *not* to change it... because the PostScript code from a good many badly-written but legitimate applications tries password 0 and will fail if it has been changed! Typically, all the application uses it for is to set some parameters back to reasonable defaults — whether the printer owner wants it that way or not — but the code makes no attempt to cope with the possibility of a non-standard password forbidding such changes. Believe it or not, there are people who will defend the idea that you should leave your printer's password unchanged so that programs can mess with its parameters however they please. Henry Spencer at U of Toronto Zoology utzoo!henry
Re: Computers and Safety (RISKS-10.34)Robert Trebor Woodhead <firstname.lastname@example.org> Mon, 10 Sep 90 13:55:49 JSTJ.G. Mainwaring discourses about GOTO's and the infamous C BREAK (as in "Here is where your program will BREAK!") It has long been my opinion (which as we all know, carries the force of law in several of the smaller West African countries.. ;^) that the EXIT() command pioneered in UCSD PASCAL was an ideal compromise. EXIT(a) exited you from enclosing procedure "a", which made it most convenient for getting out of incredibly convoluted nested structures without making them hugely more convoluted. It was the equivalent of a restricted GOTO to the end of the current procedure, with the extra ability to exit any enclosing procedure (even PROGRAM, the whole kit-n-kaboodle). It gave you the the same abilities as 90% of GOTO use, but you always knew exactly what it was going to do, and thus it was much less dangerous than BREAK. A nice side effect of the ability to semantically nest procedures and functions in PASCAL was that this allowed you to put inner parts of some horrifically obscure structure into sub-procedures, allowing you to exit from the inner parts but not the outer parts. Robert J Woodhead, Biar Games, Inc. !uunet!biar!trebor trebor@biar.UUCP
SafetyNet '90 Conference Announcement<email@example.com> Wed, 5 Sep 90 14:58:38 BSTTHE SAFETYNET '90 CONFERENCE & EXHIBITION FORMAL METHODS FOR CRITICAL SYSTEMS DEVELOPMENT Royal Aeronautical Society, 4 Hamilton Place, London Tues 16th October - Wed 17th October 1990 Registration & Coffee, 9.00a.m. - 9.30a.m. SafetyNet, PO Box 79, 19 Trinity Street, Worcester, WR1 2PX Tel: 0905 611512 Fax: 0905 612829 SafetyNet '90 Programme Day 1 16th October 09.30 General Chair Digby A. Dyke, Editor, SafetyNet 09.40 Session 1 Chair Dr. John Kershaw, RSRE 09.50 Tutorial 1: An Introduction to the RAISE Soren Prehn, Computer Resources Specification Language International 10.40 RAISE- A Case Study of Soren Prehn a Concurrent System Computer Resources International 11.35 Critical Software - Peter Jesty, Dr. Tom A Standard and its Buckley, Keith Hobley Certification & Margaret West, University of Leeds 12.10 Intellectual Property Dr. Mathew K.O. Lee Critical Systems BP Research Centre 14.00 Product Liability (Civil Ranald Robertson & Criminal) Issues for Partner, Developers of Safety- Stephenson Harwood Critical Software Solicitors 14.35 Methods for Developing Stephen Clarke, Andy Coombes Safe Software & John A McDermid, University of York 15.30 Panel 1: Chair: What are the relationships Prof Bernard Cohen among standards, certifica- Rex, Thompson & tion, compliance, evidence Partners and legal liability ? 16.30 Panel Summary Prof Bernard Cohen 16.40 Closing Remarks Dr. John Kershaw 16.45 Close of Day 1 (Please depart by 17.45) 19.30 Conference Dinner Guest Speaker Le Meridien Hotel, Piccadilly, London SafetyNet '90 Programme Day 2 17th October 09.35 General Chair Digby A. Dyke, Editor, SafetyNet 09.40 Session 2 Chair Fred Eldridge, Rex, Thompson & Partners 09.50 Tutorial 2: Peter Froome and Jan Cheng Adelard A Formal Method for Concurrency 10.40 Application of Formal Dr. D.S. Neilson Methods to Process Control BP Research Centre 11.35 Proof Obligations 3: Prof Bernard Cohen, Concurrent Systems Rex, Thompson & Partners 12.10 Refinement in the Large Paul Smith, Secure Information Systems 14.00 An Introduction to the NODEN Dr. Clive Pygott, RSRE Hardware Verification Suite 14.35 Mural - A Formal Development Dr. Richard Moore Support Environment University of Manchester 15.30 Panel 2: Chair: Prof Cliff Jones, What is inhibiting widespread University of Manchester use of Formal Methods ? 16.30 Panel Summary Prof Cliff Jones 16.40 Closing Remarks Fred Eldridge 16.45 Close of Day 2 (Please depart by 17.45) Liz Kerr, SafetyNet, PO Box 79, 19 Trinity Street, Worcester WR1 2PX Tel: 0905 611512, Fax: 0905 612829 [Coffee, lunch, tea breaks omitted. PGN]
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