Two Studies of Software Evolution

Reviewed by Greg Wilson / 2021-09-23
Keywords: Operating Systems, Programming Languages, Software Evolution

The opening sentence of Spinellis2016's abstract could serve as a byline for this entire site: "Tracking long-term progress in engineering and applied science allows us to take stock of things we have achieved, appreciate the factors that led to them, and set realistic goals for where we want to go." It and Spinellis2021 are careful, knowledgeable explorations of the ways in which C programming practices and the Unix operating system have evolved in tandem. Among their many findings:

  • Source line length has steadily increased as large screens have become more widely available. At the same time, code formatting has become more consistent, possibly because of wider adoption of automated style checks.
  • The degree of modularity has increased as the code base has gotten larger (presumably to keep complexity manageable).
  • New language features are adopted slowly, but they are adopted.
  • As the code base has grown from 13,000 to over 10 million lines of code, the complexity of various subsystems has consistently followed a rise-and-fall pattern.

The papers have much more detail than this, allowing the authors to substantiate claims that many core architectural decisions are taken at the beginning of a project, that most of these survive throughout its lifetime, and that a major source of technical debt is architecture decisions offering features that are either similar to existing ones or remain under-used. They also find that portability is a major driver of architectural evolution: its intrinsic complexity forces architects to undertake changes they might otherwise have deferred. On the other hand, "the adoption of third-party subsystems facilitates evolution through reusability but incurs technical debt," and, "Large subsystems form their own architecture, independently of the architecture of the encompassing system."

Our field doesn't yet have a rich vocabulary for talking about issues like these: compared to film critics, restaurant reviewers, or building architects, our discussions amongst ourselves all start from basics instead of building on a shared body of critical understanding. Works like these are how we will change that, and I hope similar analyses of other foundational applications will be normal some day.

Footnote: someone asked by email, "If your site is supposed to be about *evidence-based* software engineering [emphasis in original], shouldn't you restrict it to quantititative [sic] analysis of controlled experiments?" The answer to both parts is "no": qualitative analysis can be just as rigorous (or not) as quantitative, and if we only counted controlled lab experiments as science, we would have to exclude much of geology and astronomy.

Spinellis2016 Diomidis Spinellis, Panos Louridas, and Maria Kechagia: "The Evolution of C Programming Practices". Proceedings of the 38th International Conference on Software Engineering, 10.1145/2884781.2884799.

Tracking long-term progress in engineering and applied science allows us to take stock of things we have achieved, appreciate the factors that led to them, and set realistic goals for where we want to go. We formulate seven hypotheses associated with the long term evolution of C programming in the Unix operating system, and examine them by extracting, aggregating, and synthesising metrics from 66 snapshots obtained from a synthetic software configuration management repository covering a period of four decades. We found that over the years developers of the Unix operating system appear to have evolved their coding style in tandem with advancements in hardware technology, promoted modularity to tame rising complexity, adopted valuable new language features, allowed compilers to allocate registers on their behalf, and reached broad agreement regarding code formatting. The progress we have observed appears to be slowing or even reversing prompting the need for new sources of innovation to be discovered and followed.

Spinellis2021 Diomidis Spinellis and Paris Avgeriou: "Evolution of the Unix System Architecture: An Exploratory Case Study". IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering, 47(6), 2021, 10.1109/tse.2019.2892149.

Unix has evolved for almost five decades, shaping modern operating systems, key software technologies, and development practices. Studying the evolution of this remarkable system from an architectural perspective can provide insights on how to manage the growth of large, complex, and long-lived software systems. Along main Unix releases leading to the FreeBSD lineage we examine core architectural design decisions, the number of features, and code complexity, based on the analysis of source code, reference documentation, and related publications. We report that the growth in size has been uniform, with some notable outliers, while cyclomatic complexity has been religiously safeguarded. A large number of Unix-defining design decisions were implemented right from the very early beginning, with most of them still playing a major role. Unix continues to evolve from an architectural perspective, but the rate of architectural innovation has slowed down over the system's lifetime. Architectural technical debt has accrued in the forms of functionality duplication and unused facilities, but in terms of cyclomatic complexity it is systematically being paid back through what appears to be a self-correcting process. Some unsung architectural forces that shaped Unix are the emphasis on conventions over rigid enforcement, the drive for portability, a sophisticated ecosystem of other operating systems and development organizations, and the emergence of a federated architecture, often through the adoption of third-party subsystems. These findings have led us to form an initial theory on the architecture evolution of large, complex operating system software.