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Static Analysis to Hide My Ignorance about Global Concerns

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the SubMain blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  While you’re there, take a look at CodeIt.Right to help you automate elements of your code reviews.

“You never concatenate strings.  Instead, always use a StringBuilder.”

I feel pretty confident that any C# developer that has ever worked in a group has heard this admonition at least once.  This represents one of those bits of developer wisdom that the world expects you to just memorize.  Over the course of your career, these add up.  And once they do, grizzled veterans engage in a sort of comparative jousting for rank.  The internet encourages them and eggs them on.

“How can you call yourself a senior C# developer and not know how to serialize objects to XML?!”

With two evenly matched veterans swinging language swords at one another, this volley may continue for a while.  Eventually, though, one falters and pecking order is established.

Static Analyzers to the Rescue

I must confess.  I tend to do horribly at this sort of thing.  Despite having relatively good memory retention ability in theory, I have a critical Achilles Heel in this regard.  Specifically, I can only retain information that interests me.  And building up a massive arsenal of programming language “how-could-yous” for dueling purposes just doesn’t interest me.  It doesn’t solve any problem that I have.

And, really, why should it?  Early in my career, I figured out the joy of static analyzers in pretty short order.  Just as the ubiquity of search engines means I don’t need to memorize algorithms, the presence of static analyzers saves me from cognitively carrying around giant checklists of programming sins to avoid.  I rejoiced in this discovery.  Suddenly, I could solve interesting problems and trust the equivalent of programmer spell check to take care of the boring stuff.

Oh, don’t get me wrong.  After the analyzers slapped me, I internalized the lessons.  But I never bothered to go out of my way to do so.  I learned only in response to an actual, immediate problem.  “I don’t like seeing warnings, so let me figure out the issue and subsequently avoid it.”

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How to Analyze a Static Analyzer

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the NDepend blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  While you’re there, take a look around at some of the other posts, and sign up for the RSS feed, if you’re so inclined.

First things first.  I really wanted to call this post, “who will analyze the analyzer,” because I fancy myself clever.  This title would have mirrored the relatively famous Latin question from Satires, “who will guard the guards themselves?”  But I suspect that the confusion I’d cause with that title would outweigh any appreciation of my cleverness.

So, without any literary references whatsoever, I’ll talk about static analyzers.  More specifically, I’ll talk about how you should analyze them to determine fitness for your purpose.

Before I dive into that, however, let’s do a quick refresher on the definition of static analyzer.  This stack overflow question nails it pretty well, right at the beginning of the accepted answer.

Analyzing code without executing it. Generally used to find bugs or ensure conformance to coding guidelines.

Succinctly put, Aaron, and just so.  Most of what we do with code tends to be dynamic analysis.  Whether through automated tests or manual running of the program, we fire it up and see what happens.  Static analyzers, on the other hand, look at the code and use it to make deductions.  These include both deductions about runtime behavior and about the codebase itself.

What’s Your Goal?

Why rehash the definition?  Well, because I want to underscore the point that you can do many different things with static analyzers.  Even if you just think of them as “that thing that complains at me about the Microsoft guidelines,” they cover a whole lot more ground.

As such, your first step in sizing up the field involves setting your own goals.  What do you want out of the tool?  Some of them focus exclusively on code quality.  Others target specific concerns, such as behavioral correctness or security.  Still others simply offer so-called “linting.”  Some do a mix of many things.

Lay out your goals and expectations.  Once you’ve done that, you will find that you’ve narrowed the field considerably.  From there, you can proceed with a more apples to apples comparison.

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The Fastest Way to Get to Know NDepend

Editorial note: I originally wrote this post for the NDepend blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  While you’re there, download NDepend and, well, get to know it.

I confess to a certain level of avoidance when it comes to tackling something new.  If pressed for introspection, I think I do this because I can’t envision a direct path to success.  Instead, I see where I am now, the eventual goal, and a big uncertain cloud of stuff in the middle.  So I procrastinate by finding other things that need doing.

Sooner or later, however, I need to put this aside and get down to business.  For me, this usually means breaking the problem into smaller problems, identifying manageable next actions, and tackling those.  Once things become concrete, I can move methodically.  (As an aside this is one of many reasons that I love test driven development — it forces this behavior.)

When dealing with a new product or utility that I have acquired, this generally means carving out a path toward some objective and then executing.  For instance, “learn Ruby” as a goal would leave me floundering.  But “use Ruby to build a service that extracts data via API X” would result in a series of smaller goals and actions.  And I would learn via those goals.

For NDepend, I have a recommendation along these lines.  Let’s use the tool to help you visualize your the reality of your codebase better than anyone around you.  In doing this, you will get to know NDepend quickly and without feeling overwhelmed.

Running Analysis

First things first.  Before you can do much of anything with NDepend, you need to set it up to analyze your codebase.  You can get here with a pretty simple sequence of steps.

  • Download NDepend and unpack it.
  • Run the Visual Studio Extension installer and install the extension for your preferred version.
  • Launch Visual Studio and open the solution you want to visualize.
  • Attach a new NDepend project to your solution, selecting the assemblies you’d like to analyze and then clicking “analyze” (leave the “build report” checkbox checked).

That’s all there is to getting started and running an analysis.  I won’t go into more detail here, as NDepend has good online documentation and the nuts and bolts are beyond the scope of what I want to cover.  But you’ll find it fairly easy to get going here on your own, and to get your code analyzed.

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How to Scale Your Static Analysis Tooling

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the NDepend blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  While you’re there, download NDepend and have a look at the tech debt forecasting features in the latest version.

If you wander the halls of a large company with a large software development organization, you will find plenty of examples of practice and process at scale.  When you see this sort of thing, it has generally come about in one of two ways.  First, the company piloted a new practice with a team or two and then scaled it from there.  Or, second, the development organization started the practice when it was small and grew it as the department grew.

But what about “rolled it out all at once?”  Nah, (mercifully) not so much.  “Let’s take this thing we’ve never tried before, deploy it in an expensive roll out, and assume all will go well.”  Does that sound like the kind of plan executives with career concerns sign off on?  Would you sign off on it?  Even the pointiest haired of managers would feel gun shy.

When it comes to scaling a static analysis practice, you will find no exception.  Invariably, organizations grow the practice as they grow, or they pilot it and then scale it up.  And that begs the question of, “how?” when it comes to scaling static analysis.

Two main areas of concern come to mind: technical and human.  You probably think I’ll spend most of the post talking technical don’t you?  Nope.  First of all, too many tools, setups, and variations exist for me to scratch the surface.  But secondly, and more importantly, a key person that I’ll mention below will take the lead for you on this.

Instead, I’ll focus on the human element.  Or, more specifically, I will focus on the process for scaling your static analysis — a process involving humans.

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Have You Seen the NDepend API?

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the NDepend blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  While you’re there, download NDepend and give it a try.

If you’re familiar with NDepend, you’re probably familiar with the Visual Studio plugin, the out of the box metrics, the excellent visualization tools, and the iconic Zone of Uselessness/Zone of Pain chart.  These feel familiar to NDepend users and have likely found their way into the normal application development process.

NDepend has other features as well, however, some of which I do not necessarily hear discussed as frequently.  The NDepend API has membership in that “lesser known NDepend features club.”  Yes, that’s right — if you didn’t know this, NDepend has an API that you can use.

You may be familiar, as a user, with the NDepend power tools.  These include some pretty powerful capabilities, such as duplicate code detection, so it stands to reason that you may have played with them or even that you might routinely use them.  But what you may not realize is the power tools’ source code accompanies the installation of NDepend, and it furnishes a great series of examples on how to use the NDepend API.

NDepend’s API is contained in the DLLs that support the executable and plugin, so you needn’t do anything special to obtain it.  The NDepend website also treats the API as a first class citizen, providing detailed, excellent documentation.   With your NDepend installation, you can get up and running quickly with the API.

Probably the easiest way to introduce yourself is to open the source code for the power tools project and to add a power tool, or generally to modify that assembly.  If you want to create your own assembly to use the power tools, you can do that as well, though it is a bit more involved.  The purpose of this post is not to do a walk-through of setting up with the power tools, however, since that can be found here.  I will mention two things, however, that are worth bearing in mind as you get started.

  1. If you want to use the API outside of the installed project directory, there is additional setup overhead.  Because it leverages proprietary parts of NDepend under the covers, setup is more involved than just adding a DLL by reference.
  2. Because of point (1), if you want to create your own assembly outside of the NDepend project structure, be sure to follow the setup instructions exactly.

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