Your Code Is Like a Crime Scene
Find problem spots with forensic methods.
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We’ll never be able to understand large-scale systems from a single snapshot of the code. Instead, we need to understand how the code evolves and how the people who work on it are organized. That is, we have to unlock the history of our system to predict its future. Follow along and see how your version control data can provide just the information you need to prioritize and improve the parts of your codebase that matter the most.
The Challenge of Legacy Code
If you’ve spent some years in the software industry, you’ve probably encountered your fair share of legacy code. The real problem with legacy code isn’t necessarily the lack of comprehensive unit tests or even excess complexity. The problem is that no one truly understands why the code looks as it does.
Legacy code is full of mysteries. For example, that strange if statementthat seems to do nothing was once introduced as a workaround for a nasty compiler bug that has now been fixed. The re-use of the ‘userId’ parameter to represent a time stamp was a quick and dirty fix that saved a deadline.
All these things are part of a system’s story; a history that’s often lost with the passage of time. What you’re left with is a mess, and now you need to maintain it, add new features, and improve the existing code. Where do you start?
Move Beyond Code
Now, let’s pretend for a moment that you are handed a complete map of the system. You immediately notice that it isn’t your typical software diagram of boxes and cylinders. Instead, this map looks more topographical. It shows the distribution of complexity in your codebase along with information on the relative importance of each part. You’re told that the map is generated based on how the team interacted with the codebase, so you know it’s closer to reality than most of the documentation. This is good news! Now you know which components you need to grasp first and you know where the most difficult spots are located. All of this drives your learning.
Wouldn’t it be great to have access to that information on your own projects organized so you can concentrate on the parts that requirethe most attention? The good news is that you already have the data you need—just not presented in the manner you need. We’ll uncover this information by taking inspiration from an unexpected field: forensic psychology.
Learn from Forensic Psychology
Time and money are always important in commercial software projects, so you need to find a way to gradually improve the code while you maintain it. You also need to ensure that the improvements you choose to make do the most good. Even if some modules suffer from excess complexity, that doesn’t mean you should focus on them. If the team hasn’t worked on a particular module for a long time, there are probably other modules with more urgent matters where your efforts will have a greater effect on overall quality (that’s why complexity metrics alone won’t do the trick). To identify the most problematic modules, you need to prioritize all the design issues and technical debt you have in the codebase, hardly an easy task.
Interestingly enough, crime investigators face similarly open ended, large-scale problems. Modern forensic psychologists attack these problems with methods such as geographical offender profiling. Believe it or not, this method works for software developers too.
A geographical offender profile uses the spatial movement of criminals to calculate a probability surface for the location of the criminal’s home base. This probability surface is projected onto a real-world map and the high probability areas are called hotspots.
Crime investigators use these probability distributions to focus their investigations. Instead of searching and supervising a vast area, law enforcement can now focus their efforts where they are most likely to apprehend their targets.
Hotspots are Based on Spatial Patterns
Geographical offender profiling works because crimes, at least their geographic locations, are never random; the distribution of crimes follows a set of known principles. For a forensic psychologist, once they have a series of recorded crimes, they can detect patterns in the spatial behavior of the offender. They then use that information to predict where the criminal is located.
Software development is similar because code modifications aren’t random either. Code changes for a reason: users want new features, bugs appear and are fixed, and code improves as we learn new ways to simplify it.
If you look into the evolution of a large system, you’ll see that these modifications follow an uneven distribution. Some modules stabilize early during development while others remain in a state of flux. The latter is likely to be a problem; code that changes often does so either because the problem domain is poorly understood, or because the code suffers from quality problems.
The geographical profiling technique provides an attractive solution to the legacy code puzzle. Every time we make a change to our code we give away a piece of information. A code change is like a vote for the importance of a module. What we need to do is to aggregate all those votes cast by the programmers who work on the system. Code changes are our equivalent to spatial movement—and all of those changes are recorded by our version control systems.
Analyze Hotspots in Code
Version control systems are a gold mine, full of valuable information on change patterns in legacy code. To identify hotspots, we just need to traverse the source code repository and calculate the change frequency of each module. That gives us a prioritized picture of the most frequently modified code.
But there’s more to a hotspot than pure change frequencies. To qualify as a hotspot, the code area also has to have a high likelihood of overall quality problems. We don’t have a good metric for that within software. What we do have is a decent approximation based on complexity metrics from the source code. Everything from simple heuristics, like lines of code, to more elaborate metrics, like cyclomatic complexity, can potentially serve this purpose since the differences in predictive value are usually small enough to ignore.
If we combine change frequency with code complexity, we get an operational definition for hotspots. A hotspot is complicated code that programmers also have to work with often. Such code is often a maintenance nightmare. There’s empirical research to support this claim: change frequency is one of the best predictors of software defects.
I’ve listed some key tools and resources for finding and visualizing hotspots in your own code.
Code Maat: A command line tool to mine and analyze datafrom version control systems.
Code Maat Gallery: A gallery of the best examples fromvarious version control data visualizations
Your Code as a Crime Scene: My book on forensic techniquesin code quality management.
Now that we know how hotspots are found, here are some tips on how to best use that information.
Use Hotspots in Practice
Hotspots in code, like their counterparts in crime investigations, aren’t precise. Instead they suggest a probability of where most of the problems are located. A hotspot analysis can guide your team to the most beneficial areas to focus on for codebase improvement. Some obvious uses of hotspots are to identify code that’s expensiveto maintain, and to prioritize which sections of code need to be reviewed. You can also use hotspots to communicate with testers, who use the information to focus their testing around hotspot-dense feature areas.
Hotspots are a simple metric. That simplicity is a strength that translates to practice surprisingly well. In a recent analysis of one project I worked on, I found that system’s hotspots made up just 4% of the code—but were responsible for 72% of all historic defects! In other words, if our team were to improve just 4% of that codebase,we would get rid of the majority of all defects. Similar situations have been found in empirical research on software defects.
Just a Beginning
In this article we learned about hotspots as a way to direct our software quality improvement efforts. Hotspots let you narrow down a large system to specific, critical areas that need your attention.
Hotspot analysis is a powerful technique, but there’s so much more we can do once we learn to analyze how our code evolves. Over the past years I’ve used version-control data to predict bugs, detect architectural decay, find organizational problems that show up in the code, evaluate Conway’s Law, and more. Visit the links in the Analyze Hotspots in Code section of this article to download the tool that I use for finding hotspots and see examples of how it’s done and how they’re visualized.
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