All Software Has Bugs

By John McCormick  |  Posted 2004-03-08 Print this article Print

But all software has bugs.

For every thousand lines of code developed by commercial software makers or corporate programmers there could be as many as 20 to 30 bugs, according to William Guttman, the director of the SCC, a group of businesses and academic institutions looking for ways to make software more dependable. Many common programs have a million or more lines of code. Sun says its Solaris operating system has more than 10

In a one-million-line piece of code, even if you only have one bug per thousand lines, youre still going to have 1,000 bugs, says Michael Sowers, executive vice president at Software Development Technologies, a software-testing company.

In todays software, says Khosla, "you have to assume there are some bugs in the code."

Just look back at the first major case of code that killed, in healthcare.

The Therac-25 was one of the first "dual-mode" radiation-therapy machines, which meant that it could deliver both electron and photon treatments. Electrons are used to radiate surface areas of the body to kill cancer cells.

A photon beam, normally called an X-ray, can be a hundred times more powerful and as a result is used to deliver cancer-killing radiation treatments deeper into the body. According to Prof. Levesons account, the machine was "more compact, more versatile, and arguably easier to use" than its predecessor machine.

But, according to Prof. Levesons 1995 book "Safeware" and other accounts, there were a number of flaws in the software that led to the Therac-25 radiation overdoses at health facilities in Marietta, Ga.; Tyler, Texas; Yakima, Wash.; and elsewhere. In all, three people died.

One of the problems manifested itself in 1986 when a physicist tried to change machine set-up data-such as radiation dosage and treatment time-that had been keyed into the software.

The machine went through a series of steps to set itself up to deliver either electrons or photons and the dosage of the selected beam. As data was given, the machine recorded the information and then followed the instructions.

In some cases, however, operators realized while setting up the machine that they had entered an incorrect piece of information. This could be as simple as unintentionally typing in an "X" for an X-ray (or photon) treatment instead of an "E" for an electron treatment.

In "fixing" that designation, an operator would move the cursor up to the "treatment mode" line and type in an "E." The monitor displayed the new entry, seemingly telling the operator that the change was made.

But in the case of the Therac-25, the software did not accept any changes while going through its eight-second-long set-up sequence. No matter what the screen might show, the software grabbed only the first entry. The second would be ignored.

Unaware the changes did not register, operators turned on the beams and delivered X-rays, when they thought they were delivering electrons. According to Levesons account, patients received such incredibly high quantities of radiation that the beams burned their bodies. Patients who should have received anywhere from 100 to 200 rads of radiation were hit instead with 10,000 to 15,000 rads, in just one or two seconds. A thousand rads is a lethal dose.


Next Page: How the FDA, and few other U.S. agencies, regulate dangers in software.


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