The Risks Digest

The RISKS Digest

Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems

ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy, Peter G. Neumann, moderator

Volume 17 Issue 48

Tuesday 28 November 1995


o Programming Error "issues" shares
Martyn Thomas
o NEW should never abort!
David Chase
o Resistance to intelligent traffic
Phil Agre
o Can you have enough backups?
o Bank doors trap boy
Stuart A Yeates
o Luggage lockers
Steve Kilbane
o Re: Solid code (RISKS-17.45) and solid buildings (17.16)
Steve Branam
o Re: Writing solid code
Marcus Marr
David Phillip Oster
Edward Reid
Thomas Lawrence
o ABRIDGED info on RISKS (comp.risks)

Programming Error "issues" shares

Martyn Thomas <>
Mon, 27 Nov 1995 11:55:34 +0000 (GMT)

Eyecare Products plc, a company listed on the UK stock exchange, recently offered a 'scrip dividend', where shareholders could opt to take extra shares in place of the cash dividend. As a result of what the company describe as a programming fault, "several certificates were issued in error to shareholders".

I received the correct certificate, plus another for almost twice the number of shares. It is not clear to me how many other shareholders received extra certificates.

Martyn Thomas, Praxis plc, 20 Manvers Street, Bath BA1 1PX UK.
Tel: +44-1225-444700. Email: Fax: +44-1225-465205
[Perhaps this is known as a scrip tease? PGN]

NEW should never abort!

David Chase <>
Mon, 27 Nov 95 16:41:00 EST
[Jerry Leichter <> suggested this be sent to RISKS, commenting that the underlying debate on what NEW should do when there is no more memory - is an excellent illustration of the difficulties of producing reliable code. PGN]
I originally posted this in comp.lang.modula3 and a couple of other newsgroups. I was somewhat reluctant to air a former employer's dirty laundry (ah, a RISK in itself), but a decent amount of time has passed (two years). I felt that a reality check of some sort was needed on discussions of fault recovery.

Here's the original posting, with minor edits for clarity:

>From: (David Chase)
Subject: Re: NEW should never abort
Date: 14 Nov 1995 18:21:56 GMT

> In article <martelli.816078504@cadlab> (Alex
> Martelli) writes:
> |> Nonportable, but -- you trap the signals you're going to get on such
> |> conditions and longjmp back somewhere safe. Don't all of the languages
> |> on this list offer similar "emergency recovery" functionality under
> |> some guise or other, at least under OS's that enable this...?

In article, (James Kanze US/ESC 60/3/141 #40763) writes:

> Where does the system signal handler store the information to return
> (since the system cannot know that you are going to longjmp out)?
> Some Unixes (Sun, for example) allow you to specify a separate stack
> for signal handling, but this is far from universal. In all cases,
> the default action is to push the current context onto the stack
> (oops).

On SunOS and Solaris, there is a portion of the context reserved for storing register windows that could not be spilled because the stack (where they would ordinarily be spilled) was not mapped. This assumes, of course, the use of an alternate stack for catching signals. It is possible, in theory, to reserve a guard page, and remap it in your signal handler, and return from the interrupt in some more appropriate way.

However, this code was not extremely well-tested (or rather, I appear to be the first person to ever write a thorough test of it). A test program whose only function was to recurse a lot on just such a guarded stack, extending it as necessary in the signal handler, and then return from the recursion, ultimately failed (this was in 1993) on every single hardware-OS combination available to me (while working at Sun, mind you) except a SparcStation 10 running SunOS 4.1.3. Any other Sparc hardware, any other Sun OS, it would eventually fail. Solaris (at the time, releases 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3alpha) failed a little faster than SunOS, but except on that one platform, SunOS running this program would eventually enter a "funny state". Here, "funny state" is defined as "neither longjmp, exit, nor abort behaves as documented" (think about recovering gracefully from that for a minute or two :-).

( Actually exploring the failure modes was somewhat difficult. The "write" system call actually continued to work just fine, so this program could talk about what was wrong with it, and I checked ALL return codes in detail, but the behavior changed completely when run under any debugger. For good measure, alarming messages would appear on the system console every time I ran the program. The bug was actually first found on Solaris, by reading the OS to try to figure out what some of those funny fields in the context structure were. The bug tracker wanted a reproducible test case, so (after much thought) I wrote one. )

So, I ask, those of you theorizing so confidently about code which recovers from errors, have you written such code? Have you tested it thoroughly? Do you have confidence that the OS code to handle this situation was tested thoroughly? (If so, why? Do you think people write and run this sort of code every day? It's not exactly as common as opening and closing files.) If you tested it "thoroughly" on a Sun running SunOS or Solaris, how DO you suppose that you avoided the bug that I described above? Did you test your recovery code across multiple platforms, just-in-case? What's the point of writing "recovery code" if you didn't?

I realize, too, that this is a golden opportunity to sling mud at Sun and those dratted register windows, but -- Sun ships very many boxes, and runs a great diversity of code on those boxes. It's a simple matter of programming (no harder than the fault recovery that people are proposing here :-) to get this right, and they were capable of this, as demonstrated by the SS10+4.1.3 combination. The customer mix was still relatively technical at the time I left (i.e., someone who buys a PC to run games and word-processing is unlikely to report THIS bug). The internal bug-tracking software is relatively easy to use, so people use it. Bugs do get reported, they do get recorded. This one still slipped through. For what (rational) reason do you think that any other platform would do better? I've never had an opportunity to give any of the other boxes as thorough a going over as I've given to SunOS or Solaris over the years, so my failure to discover such a bug in HPUX or AIX or IRIX or NT is not a ringing endorsement of their stability.

( On the other hand, I am happy that my editor (emacs) doesn't fall over and lose all my edits when faced with the occasional inability to obtain resources. As someone pointed out in reply, it is not acceptable to simply throw up one's hands and walk away when something that is always harmless and usually sensible could be done. )

David Chase

Resistance to intelligent traffic

Phil Agre <>
Tue, 21 Nov 1995 15:07:48 -0800 (PST)

Public resistance to electronic road-use taxes is continually to grow worldwide. Most recently, a panel of 14 laymen assembled by Teknologi Naevnet (i.e., The Danish Board of Technology, Antonigade 4, DK-1106, Denmark, +45 33 32 05 03 -- see report number 5/1995), having been presented with arguments pro and con concerning "intelligent traffic" technologies, concluded that it "does not see any substantial economic, environmental or safety benefits from massive public investments in traffic informatics -- perhaps with the exception of public transport". On the issue of safety, for example, they accepted that some likely safety benefits existed, but that they had to be weighed against other potential dangers, for example that drivers' skills may deteriorate due to reliance on automation, and in any event they concluded that if safety should be improved then much more cost-effective measures were available anyway. They also raised concerns about privacy and emphasized that new legislation would have to regulate the new databases that such systems would accumulate.

The report fits an emerging global pattern. When electronic road tolls and other forms of high technology that entail surveillance of citizens' movements are implemented quietly, creating a fait accompli, citizens tend to accept them fatalistically. But when any sort of democratic procedure is employed, public resistance is very stiff indeed. This phenomenon suggests two possible scenarios for the future:

  1. Continued stealth implementation, leading to deepening public distrust of information technology and the organizations that control it.
  2. Genuine public involvement in the social choices being made about "intelligent" roadway technologies, leading to legitimate decisions based on full public debate, and potentially as well to technological improvements (such as the use of digital cash and other technologies of anonymity) that deliver a broad range of functionality while responding appropriately to legitimate public concerns.
Which scenario occurs will depend on the political culture of each country. More concretely, it will depend on the degree to which people are informed about the issues, express their concerns, and ensure that the more legitimate course is taken.
Phil Agre, UCSD

Can you have enough backups?

Fri, 24 Nov 95 16:15:26 GMT

I was talking to a friend yesterday about the fear of losing our computers and did we have adequate backups for the work we did at home. As a result, she recounted the following cautionary tale. Although it was from a number of years ago (as the technology will show), the lessons remain relevant.

She was responsible for a major health research project, which involved the collection of a large quantity of survey data.

The data was coded onto punched cards.

The punched cards were read into the computer.

Two tape backups were kept one locally and one at a secure distant location.

Adequate precautions one would think - the same data existed in five different forms. However:

  1. The computer crashed eliminating the current file.
  2. Someone had written over the first part of the local tape - making the tape unusable.
  3. When the computer centre was contacted they said that a boiler explosion had destroyed many of the tapes in the storage area and the records of who they belonged to. They were waiting for client to contact them so they could identify the scope of the damage. The backup my friend was seeking was one of those destroyed.
  4. They went back to the punched cards. This meant losing the analysis of the data, but this could be redone if the original data was available,


    Someone had dropped the cards on the floor. There were several thousand of them and they could only be entered in the right order. There were now in random order. There was a faint dot matrix printed number on each card.

  5. The project team were faced with three options:

    a. sorting the cards
    b. re-punching all the data
    c. abandoning the project

    They chose c.

Bank doors trap boy

Stuart A Yeates <>
27 Nov 1995 23:57:33 GMT

The *New Zealand Herald* of 27 Nov 1995 carried an article which described who a five-year-old boy had been trapped in a closed bank for 30 minutes after somehow managing to get the doors open. The doors then closed behind him, trapping him in the entrance-way between two sets of double doors.

The Police and Fire Service were called and tried unsuccessfully to free him, but he remained trapped until one of the branch managers arrived "with a card which opened the doors electronically. The Manager told Police it was not the first time the front doors of the bank had caused problems."

Stuart Yeates

Luggage lockers

Steve_Kilbane <>
Mon, 27 Nov 1995 12:38:13 GMT

I had occasion to store some luggage in a locker at Edinburgh railway station last weekend. They have a computer-controlled system. The idea is that you place your luggage in a locker, and close the door, which then locks. You then go to a control panel with an LCD display, and enter the required money. The panel gives you a printout with the code which you later enter to unlock the locker.

There is a safety feature, in that if you don't enter the required money within 30 seconds, the locker unlocks again. Green and red lights show the state of the door lock, not to mention the fairly noticeable clunk of the lock mechanism.

The problem is that there is one control panel shared among several lockers. When you close a locker, it appears to "grab" the control panel. However, you can still close other lockers, which presumably wait their turn for the control panel.

As far as I can work out, while placed a lot of luggage in on locker, I closed one of the other doors, by accident (such as leaning a case against it), with the result that I paid for a couple of hours security of an empty locker, while the locker with my luggage unlocked after I had left it. Thankfully, nothing was stolen (perhaps nothing was worth stealing.:-)).

I returned to the locker shortly before my train was due to leave, so didn't have much time to experiment with the system before I had to catch the train. However, there was nothing which drew my attention to the fact that I might be paying to lock the wrong door. This might happen more than you would suppose - someone else was feeding stuff into a locker just after me. It's not too hard to foresee a race condition where someone pays to lock your luggage in, and then walks off with the unlocking code.


Re: Solid code (RISKS-17.45) and solid buildings (17.16)

Steve Branam - Hub Products Engineering <>
Wed, 22 Nov 95 12:16:04 EST

[This message is a resubmission of comments I originally made regarding an item in RISKS 17.16. While the context is different, I feel they are apropos, since people are debating the safety of removing runtime assertions that check for programming errors.]

In RISKS DIGEST 17.16, Andy Huber <arhuber@SEI.CMU.EDU> says "One of the conclusions is that many buildings fail due to a lack of redundancy, which I find very interesting since very few operating systems (or software of any kind) has any kind of redundancy designed or built into it.]"

On the contrary, I do see quite a bit of software with redundancy built in (but not nearly enough). We often think of redundant systems as meaning side-by-side system/subsystem duplication, but a practice that should be more widely promoted is that of "sanity checking", where redundant (i.e., apparently unnecessary) code is introduced to check information generated by another part of the software. The idea is that one part of the system checks up on the other part, to determine if the other part has "gone insane".

For example, a routine may compute a value intended to be in a certain range, then pass it to another routine that first verifies the value is in range before actually trying to use it. Especially when this is all within a single subsystem, one could argue that checking the value is unnecessary, since it was just generated by a routine known to be generating correct data; thus compute cycles and memory (for the additional instructions) are being wasted. This argument is generally the one used to skip sanity checking (assuming anyone bothers to consider it in the first place). However, the further apart the producer and consumer of the value are, the greater the opportunity for something to corrupt it.

Besides, what happens when someone makes an incorrect "enhancement" to the producing routine, so that now it does produce bad data? Or what if the consuming code is reused on another project, called from different code than that for which it was originally written? Or what if the stack gets corrupted due to a bad interrupt service routine? Or there is a read error pulling the value in from the database on the disk? Or... ad infinitum until you can be convinced that it is worthwhile to do a little more rigorous checking of data before using it.

The point of all this is to detect data corruption or faulty code and try and do something about it before the situation gets worse. For instance, some operating systems incorporates sanity checks on internal data structures, and generally respond to detected faults by crashing the system with a "bugcheck", the logic being that once a problem is detected, the system should be shutdown before the problem propagates further and possibly corrupts user data. So while users might complain about the system going down, bugchecks are their friends.

The difference between software and buildings is that a building can not take itself down and bring itself back up to correct its problems. The same may be said of critical realtime control software, since an aircraft on final approach is not a good time for the flight control system to reboot itself. So in reality, detecting a problem is the easy part; it's dealing with the problem with the least undesirable consequences that is the hard part!

Steve Branam

Re: Writing solid code (Wolff, RISKS-17.46)

Marcus Marr <>
Tue, 21 Nov 1995 16:18:15 GMT

Roger Wolff and others recommend leaving checks for programming errors in production code to ensure the consistency of internal data representations, but also to ``catch lots of errors earlier on''.

This has the `disadvantage' of clearly identifying problems in the code, which:

(a) the users are more likely to report, and
(b) the users are going to want fixed.

The cost of telephone support would increase, as would the workload of the programming departments.

``There are no bugs in Microsoft products that the majority of users want fixed''

Make sure that the majority of users don't know about the bugs (the ``luddites'' will probably blame themselves for ``not using the software properly''), and the above marketing statement will stand.

The risks? `Luddites' expecting higher quality software.


Re: Writing solid code (Beatty, RISKS 17.45)

David Phillip Oster <>
Tue, 21 Nov 1995 17:22:54 GMT

I seem to have read a different "Writing Solid Code" than the other posters to this list. The version I read supported the following coding style:

Add two blocks of checks to significant pieces of your algorithm:

<2> fixup

The ASSERT checks are designed for use in a run-time environment where all the source code is available. If an ASSERT check fails, it does so showing the user the line in the source where a precondition violation has been detected. It is intented for programmers who are clients of an interface, and its goal is to get programmers to call the interface correctly. ("Writing Solid Code" also recommends that the ASSERT re-compute the return value by another, slower algorithm, and compare the two values. Surely such checks can be removed in the production version.)

The "fixup" checks often check the exact same preconditions that the ASSERT checks check. These checks are intended to be executed in all environments, but since they check the same things as the ASSERTs, they generally don't fire in the development environment, since the ASSERT will already have fired. The "fixup" checks job is to handle the error in a way appropriate for a production environment. Often this means throwing an exception, which cleanly backs out of a partially completed operation, and displays an error message to the user explaining in the users terminology what went wrong.

Sometimes it just means fixing up the precondition and continuing. For example, if you pass a bad pointer for one of three output arguments, should the program die or should it compute the two outputs it can, and not touch the third? The "Writing Solid Code" answer to this question is: The program should die during development so that the developer will discover and fix the problem. The program should continue after deployment, because immediate termination is less useful to the customer.

If you want to bash Microsoft, just quote the section of "Writing Solid Code" where the author says he wrote the book because he had observed a decline in code quality inside Microsoft, that the lessons of the past that his book was supposed to teach were being ignored within Microsoft.

Re: Writing solid code (da Silva, RISKS 17.46)

Edward Reid <>
Tue, 21 Nov 95 09:39:56 -0500

> This is much like the old Burroughs boxes, where the compiler guaranteed
> that no operation that violated the security policy was generated.

Presumably Peter is speaking of the Burroughs B-6700 -- and its modern descendent, the Unisys A-Series, which has all the same attributes. In fact, the A-Series is still virtually code-compatible with the defunct B-6700.

To say the compiler guaranteed that no operation violated security is a vast oversimplification. Security, in the broad sense, is a joint responsibility of the compilers, the instruction set architecture (ISA), and the operating system (MCP). The compilers do not generate code which unconditionally violates security, but often the generated code is further checked by the ISA or the MCP. For example, the ISA checks array bounds and prevents the code from accessing memory outside that allocated to the task. The MCP manages file access security. And so on. This division of responsibilities is a sound method, as evidenced by the high security level and reliability of A-Series systems. Doing all the checks at run time is not necessary.

The A-Series actively supports the paradigm that all assertion checks should remain in the code. The most obvious such support is the ISA checking for array bounds, as it can do so in parallel with the actual memory addressing operations at no cost in performance and a very small cost in the price of the CPU. Numerous similar examples exist in the architecture.

Edward Reid

Re: Writing solid code (Beatty, RISKS 17.45)

Thomas Lawrence <>
21 Nov 1995 19:07:49 GMT

>There are probably a few assertions which belong only in development code,
>because they are so expensive to check that they make the product unusable.
>In my experience, this is surely *not* the common case.

I'm not sure if this experience is that wide-spread. In my own experience, there are a great many assertions which are unacceptably expensive to check. Here are a few examples:

Heap/Pointer Integrity: Many (most?) programmers use pointer checking techniques to catch dangling pointer uses and memory leaks. This typically involves using a special tool (e.g. purify) if you're lucky enough to run on a platform that supports it, or using a special malloc library along with routines called by the user at appropriate points (e.g. CheckPtr, CheckRefWithinRange, etc.) Most of these schemes cause programs to run 3 to 10 times slower than without the checks. That's generally not acceptable in a production application, so such checks are omitted from the final version. I would estimate that at least 50% of the assertions I put in my code are calls to such utilities.

Algorithmic Redundancy: It is common to run multiple independent algorithms in a debug version and compare their results. For instance, in the Microsoft book, they say the debugging spreadsheet engine uses 2 algorithms to recompute values. One is the fancy dataflow based one which only recomputes stuff that depends on changed values. The other recomputes everything. Then the results are compared. If they are different, then there is a bug somewhere. This approach is useful anytime one uses a very complex algorithm to try to improve performance. Applications which use many such algorithms (spreadsheets, databases, and compilers, perhaps?) may have a significant amount of code devoted to these checks. Since the verification algorithm is usually much slower, you wouldn't want to include it in the production version.

Structural Checks: In programs that use complex internal data structures (like compilers), it is common to write routines which verify the integrity of the structure. Such routines are usually expensive since they traverse the entire structure. I certainly have a tendency to call these checks anytime I modify the data structure in some way. This usually results in serious slowdowns, so they can't be included in the final version.

Simple checks such as array bounds, NULL pointer, and unexpected switch/enum value checks can also be very expensive. I tend not to be that great a programmer, so my code is really peppered with these checks. (Some modules have more than 50% of the lines devoted to this stuff.) Even after turning off the fancy memory and algorithm checks, these alone may cause slowdowns of 2 or 3, and sometimes serious as 5 times (always in the compute-intensive sections of the code, too, wouldn't ya know it!). You might want to keep some checks in the final version, but you may have to turn off a significant number of them.

The main reason for this approach to programming is the reality that programmers don't like to put stuff in the code that makes it run slower. If you can convince a programmer that "your checks will not be in the final version", then he'll be much more willing to put assertions into the code. By having so many more assertions, you can catch many bugs much more quickly than by putting in only as many assertions as you can get away with given the program performance you are targeting. By catching more problems, you may be able to produce a program that has fewer bugs by the time it reaches the user. Although bugs that do slip through might be harder to detect, and perhaps more damaging, the tradeoff may still favor turning off many of the assertions.

I'd like to suggest a different reason why Microsoft's products may not be very good. It's because of their complexity. The approach advocated in the book is based on the idea that bugs will be caught during the beta-test stage. In many situations, this is reasonable (and many solid programs have been written using the above approach; it's not just Microsoft's idea, although they published the book). However, I suspect that Microsoft's applications are becoming so complex that it is no longer possible to thoroughly test the programs, so bugs start slipping through. Perhaps a redesign of Microsoft's design philosophy is what's required.

Perhaps the best solution is to give 2 versions of the program to the end user. One with debugging, to satisfy people who are paranoid about losing all their data due to internal program corruption. The other without any debugging, for situations where you need maximum performance. Then let the user decide which to use.

>(no, I haven't reported these to Microsoft. Why should I? They're not going
>to fix it... we're going to have to upgrade to 3.51 just to get around this
>bug, for all that Bill Gates claimed "A bug fix is the worst possible reason
>to release an upgrade" or words to that effect).

The bugs will be in the code regardless of whether or not you remove the assertions (excepting the tradeoff I mentioned above). Whether or not the company is willing to release bug fixes for the bugs (however detected) is an entirely different matter -- a marketing matter. I'd say the programmers are well aware of the reported bugs, and probably have versions of the code with the bugs fixed. It's management's decision not to provide these fixes to the end user, for whatever reason (saving money, etc).

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