1.What is 'Software Quality Assurance'?
Software QA involves the entire software development Process - monitoring and improving the process, making sure that any agreed-upon standards and procedures are followed, and ensuring that problems are found and dealt with.
It is oriented to 'prevention'. (See the Books section for a list of useful books on Software Quality Assurance.)
2.What is 'Software Testing'?
Testing involves operation of a system or application under controlled conditions and evaluating the results (eg, 'if the user is in interface A of the application while using hardware B, and does C, then D should happen'). The controlled conditions should include both normal and abnormal conditions. Testing should intentionally attempt to make things go wrong to determine if things happen when they shouldn't or things don't happen when they should. It is oriented to 'detection'.
Organizations vary considerably in how they assign responsibility for QA and testing. Sometimes they're the combined responsibility of one group or individual. Also common are project teams that include a mix of testers and developers who work closely together, with overall QA processes monitored by project managers. It will depend on what best fits an organization's size and business structure.
3. What are some recent major computer system failures caused by software bugs?
* Media reports in January of 2005 detailed severe problems with a $170 million high-profile U.S. government IT systems project. Software testing was one of the five major problem areas according to a report of the commission reviewing the project. Studies were under way to determine which, if any, portions of the project could be salvaged.
* In July 2004 newspapers reported that a new government welfare management system in Canada costing several hundred million dollars was unable to handle a simple benefits rate increase after being put into live operation. Reportedly the original contract allowed for only 6 weeks of acceptance testing and the system was never tested for its ability to handle a rate increase.
* Millions of bank accounts were impacted by errors due to installation of inadequately tested software code in the transaction processing system of a major North American bank, according to mid-2004 news reports. Articles about the incident stated that it took two weeks to fix all the resulting errors, that additional problems resulted when the incident drew a large number of e-mail phishing attacks against the bank's customers, and that the total cost of the incident could exceed $100 million.
* A bug in site management software utilized by companies with a significant percentage of worldwide web traffic was reported in May of 2004. The bug resulted in performance problems for many of the sites simultaneously and required disabling of the software until the bug was fixed.
* According to news reports in April of 2004, a software bug was determined to be a major contributor to the 2003 Northeast blackout, the worst power system failure in North American history. The failure involved loss of electrical power to 50 million customers, forced shutdown of 100 power plants, and economic losses estimated at $6 billion. The bug was reportedly in one utility company's vendor-supplied power monitoring and management system, which was unable to correctly handle and report on an unusual confluence of initially localized events. The error was found and corrected after examining millions of lines of code.
* In early 2004, news reports revealed the intentional use of a software bug as a counter-espionage tool. According to the report, in the early 1980's one nation surreptitiously allowed a hostile nation's espionage service to steal a version of sophisticated industrial software that had intentionally-added flaws. This eventually resulted in major industrial disruption in the country that used the stolen flawed software.
* A major U.S. retailer was reportedly hit with a large government fine in October of 2003 due to web site errors that enabled customers to view one anothers' online orders.
* News stories in the fall of 2003 stated that a manufacturing company recalled all their transportation products in order to fix a software problem causing instability in certain circumstances. The company found and reported the bug itself and initiated the recall procedure in which a software upgrade fixed the problems.
* In January of 2001 newspapers reported that a major European railroad was hit by the aftereffects of the Y2K bug. The company found that many of their newer trains would not run due to their inability to recognize the date '31/12/2000'; the trains were started by altering the control system's date settings.
* News reports in September of 2000 told of a software vendor settling a lawsuit with a large mortgage lender; the vendor had reportedly delivered an online mortgage
* In early 2000, major problems were reported with a new computer system in a large suburban U.S. public school district with 100,000+ students; problems included 10,000 erroneous report cards and students left stranded by failed class registration systems; the district's CIO was fired. The school district decided to reinstate it's original 25-year old system for at least a year until the bugs were worked out of the new system by the software vendors.
* In October of 1999 the $125 million NASA Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft was believed to be lost in space due to a simple data conversion error. It was determined that spacecraft software used certain data in English units that should have been in metric units. Among other tasks, the orbiter was to serve as a communications relay for the Mars Polar Lander mission, which failed for unknown reasons in December 1999. Several investigating panels were convened to determine the process failures that allowed the error to go undetected.
* Bugs in software supporting a large commercial high-speed data network affected 70,000 business customers over a period of 8 days in August of 1999. Among those affected was the electronic trading system of the largest U.S. futures exchange, which was shut down for most of a week as a result of the outages.
* January 1998 news reports told of software problems at a major U.S. telecommunications company that resulted in no charges for long distance calls for a month for 400,000 customers. The problem went undetected until customers called up with questions about their bills. processing system that did not meet specifications, was delivered late, and didn't work.
4.Why is it often hard for management to get serious about quality assurance?
* Solving problems is a high-visibility process; preventing problems is low-visibility. This is illustrated by an old parable: In ancient China there was a family of healers, one of whom was known throughout the land and employed as a physician to a great lord.
5.Why does software have bugs?
* Miscommunication or no communication - as to specifics of what an application should or shouldn't do (the application's requirements).
* Software complexity - the complexity of current software applications can be difficult to comprehend for anyone without experience in modern-day software development. Multi-tiered applications, client-server and distributed applications, data communications, enormous relational databases, and sheer size of applications have all contributed to the exponential growth in software/system complexity.
* Programming errors - programmers, like anyone else, can make mistakes.
* Changing requirements (whether documented or undocumented) - the end-user may not understand the effects of changes, or may understand and request them anyway - redesign, rescheduling of engineers, effects on other projects, work already completed that may have to be redone or thrown out, hardware requirements that may be affected, etc. If there are many minor changes or any major changes, known and unknown dependencies among parts of the project are likely to interact and cause problems, and the complexity of coordinating changes may result in errors. Enthusiasm of engineering staff may be affected. In some fast-changing business environments, continuously modified requirements may be a fact of life. In this case, management must understand the resulting risks, and QA and test engineers must adapt and plan for continuous extensive testing to keep the inevitable bugs from running out of control - see 'What can be done if requirements are changing continuously?' in Part 2 of the FAQ. Also see information about 'agile' approaches such as XP, also in Part 2 of the FAQ.
* Time pressures - scheduling of software projects is difficult at best, often requiring a lot of guesswork. When deadlines loom and the crunch comes, mistakes will be made.
* egos - people prefer to say things like:
* * 'no problem'
* * 'piece of cake'
* * 'I can whip that out in a few hours'
* * 'it should be easy to update that old code'
* instead of:
* * 'that adds a lot of complexity and we could end up making a lot of mistakes'
* * 'we have no idea if we can do that; we'll wing it'
* * 'I can't estimate how long it will take, until I take a close look at it'
* * 'we can't figure out what that old spaghetti code did in the first place'
If there are too many unrealistic 'no problem's', the result is bugs.
* Poorly documented code - it's tough to maintain and modify code that is badly written or poorly documented; the result is bugs. In many organizations management provides no incentive for programmers to document their code or write clear, understandable, maintainable code. In fact, it's usually the opposite: they get points mostly for quickly turning out code, and there's job security if nobody else can understand it ('if it was hard to write, it should be hard to read').
* Software development tools - visual tools, class libraries, compilers, scripting tools, etc. often introduce their own bugs or are poorly documented, resulting in added bugs.
6.How can new Software QA processes be introduced in an existing organization?
* A lot depends on the size of the organization and the risks involved. For large organizations with high-risk (in terms of lives or property) projects, serious management buy-in is required and a formalized QA process is necessary.
* Where the risk is lower, management and organizational buy-in and QA implementation may be a slower, step-at-a-time process. QA processes should be balanced with productivity so as to keep bureaucracy from getting out of hand.
* For small groups or projects, a more ad-hoc process may be appropriate, depending on the type of customers and projects. A lot will depend on team leads or managers, feedback to developers, and ensuring adequate communications among customers, managers, developers, and testers.
* The most value for effort will often be in (a) requirements management processes, with a goal of clear, complete, testable requirement specifications embodied in requirements or design documentation, or in 'agile'-type environments extensive continuous coordination with end-users, (b) design inspections and code inspections, and (c) post-mortems/retrospectives.
7.What is verification? validation?
* Verification typically involves reviews and meetings to evaluate documents, plans, code, requirements, and specifications. This can be done with checklists, issues lists, walkthroughs, and inspection meetings. Validation typically involves actual testing and takes place after verifications are completed. The term 'IV & V' refers to Independent Verification and Validation.
8.What is a 'walkthrough'?
* A 'walkthrough' is an informal meeting for evaluation or informational purposes. Little or no preparation is usually required.