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Welcome to Tools of the Trade

This podcast of an ongoing IEEE Software column explores the interplay between you, the software practitioner, and the tools you apply to the development problems you face. Skilled craftsmen set themselves apart from amateurs by the tools they use and the way they employ them. As a professional, I feel I'm getting a tremendous boost in my productivity by appropriately applying tools to the software construction problems I face every day. I also often find myself developing new tools, both for my personal use and for wider distribution. Column installments will discuss specific software construction activities from the standpoint of the tools we can employ — the tools of our trade. Future topics include editing, compiling, documentation, debugging, testing, configuration management, issue tracking, the development environment, tool building, and domain-specific tools. Of course, your suggestions are always welcome; email me at dds@aueb.gr. Diomidis Spinellis

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The Frictionless Development Environment Scorecard

The environment in which we work as developers can make a tremendous difference on our productivity and well-being. Yet it's easy to get trapped in an unproductive setup by inertia, and thus suffer death by a thousand cuts. A scorecard we can use to evaluate and fix the environment we work in covers the setup of our workstation and working environment, our ability to access remote hosts, general-purpose tools, editing, debugging, application development, and the specific problem at hand. Some fixes involve tweaks in our setup, and others might require us to install new tools, learn new skills, and negotiate with our managers. They're all worthwhile investments.

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Disorganized workplace

Differential Debugging

Finding yourself in a situation with a working and a buggy system is quite common. Differential debugging methodically can help by comparing a known good system with a buggy one, working toward the problem source. Some simple steps include applying differential debugging by looking at log files and increasing a system’s log verbosity when needed. If the system doesn’t offer a sufficiently detailed logging mechanism, you can tease out its runtime behavior with tools that trace calls to the operating system or that trace network packets. You can also compare carefully the two environments where the systems operate.

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Portability: Goodies vs. the Hair Shirt

Deciding whether to write portable code or not should be the outcome of a cost-benefit analysis. The key reason to favor portable code is that it opens up the selection of resources available to our project. Diverse technology choices free us from vendor lock-in, allowing us to select the best technology in each area based on quality and price, and minimize technology risks. However, portable code can degrade functionality, expressiveness, and efficiency. A middle course involves drawing boundaries around the non-portable code to isolate it from the rest of the application. Another approach is to admit defeat and write code that gives the best native experience. In the long term, separately maintained code bases can be less complex than a unified one.

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Systems Software

Systems software is the low-level infrastructure that applications run on. As an applications programmer, first try to find existing systems software rather than writing it from scratch. Once you start writing systems software, use the most efficient algorithms and data structures that gracefully accommodate the workload. Have your code check for all error returns, block when it has nothing to do, and avoid repeatedly processing data in memory. You can accelerate stress testing your software by configuring your testing environment to exercise its edge cases. To debug your software, instrument it with copious amounts of configurable logging.

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About the Speaker

Diomidis SpinellisDiomidis Spinellis is a professor in the Department of Management Science and Technology at the Athens University of Economics and Business and the author of Code Quality: The Open Source Perspective (Addison-Wesley, 2006). Contact him at dds@aueb.gr.