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Software development process

Module by: Trung Hung VO. E-mail the author

Summary: A software development process is a structure imposed on the development of a software product. This session introduces several models for such processes, each describing approaches to a variety of tasks or activities that take place during the process.

A software development process is a structure imposed on the development of a software product. Synonyms include software lifecycle and software process. There are several models for such processes, each describing approaches to a variety of tasks or activities that take place during the process.

Processes and meta-processes

A growing body of software development organizations implement process methodologies. Many of them are in the defense industry, which in the U.S. requires a rating based on 'process models' to obtain contracts. The international standard for describing the method of selecting, implementing and monitoring the life cycle for software is ISO 12207.

The Capability Maturity Model (CMM) is one of the leading models. Independent assessments grade organizations on how well they follow their defined processes, not on the quality of those processes or the software produced. CMM is gradually replaced by CMMI. ISO 9000 describes standards for formally organizing processes with documentation.

ISO 15504, also known as Software Process Improvement Capability Determination (SPICE), is a "framework for the assessment of software processes". This standard is aimed at setting out a clear model for process comparison. SPICE is used much like CMM and CMMI. It models processes to manage, control, guide and monitor software development. This model is then used to measure what a development organization or project team actually does during software development. This information is analyzed to identify weaknesses and drive improvement. It also identifies strengths that can be continued or integrated into common practice for that organization or team.

Process activities/steps

DesignOperation andMaintenanceRequirementImplementationFeasibility andPlanningTesting

1. Requirements analysis: The most important task in creating a software product is extracting the requirements. Customers typically know what they want, but not what software should do, while incomplete, ambiguous or contradictory requirements are recognized by skilled and experienced software engineers. Frequently demonstrating live code may help reduce the risk that the requirements are incorrect.

The system's services, constraints and goals are established by consultation with system users. They are then defined in a manner that is understandable by both users and development staff.

This phase can be divided into:

  • Feasibility study (often carried out separately)
  • Requirements analysis
  • Requirements definition
  • Requirements specification

2. Design

  • System design: Partition the requirements to hardware or software systems. Establishes an overall system architecture. The architecture of a software system refers to an abstract representation of that system. Architecture is concerned with making sure the software system will meet the requirements of the product, as well as ensuring that future requirements can be addressed. The architecture step also addresses interfaces between the software system and other software products, as well as the underlying hardware or the host operating system.
  • Software design: Represent the software system functions in a form that can be transformed into one or more executable programs. Specification is the task of precisely describing the software to be written, possibly in a rigorous way. In practice, most successful specifications are written to understand and fine-tune applications that were already well-developed, although safety-critical software systems are often carefully specified prior to application development. Specifications are most important for external interfaces that must remain stable.

3. Implementation (or coding): Reducing a design to code may be the most obvious part of the software engineering job, but it is not necessarily the largest portion. An important (and often overlooked) task is documenting the internal design of software for the purpose of future maintenance and enhancement. Documentation is most important for external interfaces.

4. Testing: Testing of parts of software, especially where code by two different engineers must work together, falls to the software engineer.

6. Operation and maintenance: A large percentage of software projects fail because the developers fail to realize that it doesn't matter how much time and planning a development team puts into creating software if nobody in an organization ends up using it. People are occasionally resistant to change and avoid venturing into an unfamiliar area, so as a part of the deployment phase, its very important to have training classes for the most enthusiastic software users (build excitement and confidence), shifting the training towards the neutral users intermixed with the avid supporters, and finally incorporate the rest of the organization into adopting the new software. Users will have lots of questions and software problems which leads to the next phase of software. Maintaining and enhancing software to cope with newly discovered problems or new requirements can take far more time than the initial development of the software. Not only may it be necessary to add code that does not fit the original design but just determining how software works at some point after it is completed may require significant effort by a software engineer. About ⅔ of all software engineering work is maintenance, but this statistic can be misleading. A small part of that is fixing bugs. Most maintenance is extending systems to do new things, which in many ways can be considered new work. In comparison, about ⅔ of all civil engineering, architecture, and construction work is maintenance in a similar way.

Process models

A decades-long goal has been to find repeatable, predictable processes or methodologies that improve productivity and quality. Some try to systematize or formalize the seemingly unruly task of writing software. Others apply project management techniques to writing software. Without project management, software projects can easily be delivered late or over budget. With large numbers of software projects not meeting their expectations in terms of functionality, cost, or delivery schedule, effective project management is proving difficult.

Waterfall process

In 1970 Royce proposed what is presently referred to as the waterfall model as an initial concept, a model which he argued was flawed (Royce 1970). His paper then explored how the initial model could be developed into an iterative model, with feedback from each phase influencing subsequent phases, similar to many methods used widely and highly regarded by many today. It is only the initial model that received notice; his own criticism of this initial model has been largely ignored. The "waterfall model" quickly came to refer not to Royce's final, iterative design, but rather to his purely sequentially ordered model. This article will use this popular meaning of the phrase waterfall model. For an iterative model similar to Royce's final vision, see the spiral model.

Despite Royce's intentions for the waterfall model to be modified into an iterative model, use of the "waterfall model" as a purely sequential process is still popular, and, for some, the phrase "waterfall model" has since come to refer to any approach to software creation which is seen as inflexible and non-iterative. Those who use the phrase waterfall model pejoratively for non-iterative models that they dislike usually see the waterfall model itself as naive and unsuitable for a "real world" process.

The best-known and oldest process is the waterfall model, where developers (roughly) follow these steps in order:

Figure 1
Figure 1 (graphics1.png)

To follow the waterfall model, one proceeds from one phase to the next in a purely sequential manner. For example, one first completes "requirements specification" — they set in stone the requirements of the software. When the requirements are fully completed, one proceeds to design. The software in question is designed and a "blueprint" is drawn for implementers (coders) to follow — this design should be a plan for implementing the requirements given. When the design is fully completed, an implementation of that design is made by coders. Towards the later stages of this implementation phase, disparate software components produced by different teams are integrated. After the implementation and integration phases are complete, the software product is tested and debugged; any faults introduced in earlier phases are removed here. Then the software product is installed, and later maintained to introduce new functionality and remove bugs.

Thus the waterfall model maintains that one should move to a phase only when its preceding phase is completed and perfected. Phases of development in the waterfall model are thus discrete, and there is no jumping back and forth or overlap between them.

There is a misconception that the process has no provision for correcting errors in early steps (for example, in the requirements). In fact this is where the domain of requirements management comes in which includes change control.

This approach is used in high risk projects, particularly large defense contracts. The problems in waterfall do not arise from "immature engineering practices, particularly in requirements analysis and requirements management." Studies of the failure rate of the specification, which enforced waterfall, have shown that the more closely a project follows its process, specifically in up-front requirements gathering, the more likely the project is to release features that are not used in their current form.

More often too the supposed stages are part of joint review between customer and supplier, the supplier can, in fact, develop at risk and evolve the design but must sell off the design at a key milestone called Critical Design Review (CDR). This shifts engineering burdens from engineers to customers who may have other skills.

The waterfall model however is argued by many to be a bad idea in practice, mainly because of their belief that it is impossible to get one phase of a software product's lifecycle "perfected" before moving on to the next phases and learning from them (or, at least, the belief that this is impossible for any non-trivial program). For example, clients may not be aware of exactly what requirements they want before they see a working prototype and can comment upon it; they may change their requirements constantly, and program designers and implementers may have little control over this. If clients change their requirements after a design is finished, that design must be modified to accommodate the new requirements, invalidating quite a good deal of effort if overly large amounts of time have been invested into "Big Design Up Front". (Thus, methods opposed to the naive waterfall model--such as those used in Agile software development--advocate less reliance on a fixed, static requirements document or design document). Designers may not (or, more likely, cannot) be aware of future implementation difficulties when writing a design for an unimplemented software product. That is, it may become clear in the implementation phase that a particular area of program functionality is extraordinarily difficult to implement. If this is the case, it is better to revise the design than to persist in using a design that was made based on faulty predictions and that does not account for the newly discovered problem areas.

The idea behind the waterfall model may be "measure twice; cut once", and those opposed to the waterfall model argue that this idea tends to fall apart when the problem being measured is constantly changing due to requirement modifications and new realizations about the problem itself. The idea behind those who object to the waterfall model may be "time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted".

In summary, the criticisms of a non-iterative development approach (such as the waterfall model) are as follows:

  • Many software projects must be open to change due to external factors; the majority of software is written as part of a contract with a client, and clients are notorious for changing their stated requirements. Thus the software project must be adaptable, and spending considerable effort in design and implementation based on the idea that requirements will never change is neither adaptable nor realistic in these cases.
  • Unless those who specify requirements and those who design the software system in question are highly competent, it is difficult to know exactly what is needed in each phase of the software process before some time is spent in the phase "following" it. That is, feedback from following phases is needed to complete "preceding" phases satisfactorily. For example, the design phase may need feedback from the implementation phase to identify problem design areas. The counter-argument for the waterfall model is that experienced designers may have worked on similar systems before, and so may be able to accurately predict problem areas without time spent prototyping and implementing.
  • Constant testing from the design, implementation and verification phases is required to validate the phases preceding them. Constant "prototype design" work is needed to ensure that requirements are non-contradictory and possible to fulfill; constant implementation is needed to find problem areas and inform the design process; constant integration and verification of the implemented code is necessary to ensure that implementation remains on track. The counter-argument for the waterfall model here is that constant implementation and testing to validate the design and requirements is only needed if the introduction of bugs is likely to be a problem. Users of the waterfall model may argue that if designers (et cetera) follow a disciplined process and do not make mistakes that there is no need for constant work in subsequent phases to validate the preceding phases.
  • Frequent incremental builds (following the "release early, release often" philosophy) are often needed to build confidence for a software production team and their client.
  • It is difficult to estimate time and cost for each phase of the development process without doing some "recon" work in that phase, unless those estimating time and cost are highly experienced with the type of software product in question.
  • The waterfall model brings no formal means of exercising management control over a project and planning control and risk management are not covered within the model itself.
  • Only a certain number of team members will be qualified for each phase; thus to have "code monkeys" who are only useful for implementation work do nothing while designers "perfect" the design is a waste of resources. A counter-argument to this is that "multiskilled" software engineers should be hired over "specialized" staff.

Iterative process

Figure 2
Figure 2 (graphics2.jpg)

Iterative development prescribes the construction of initially small but ever larger portions of a software project to help all those involved to uncover important issues early before problems or faulty assumptions can lead to disaster. Iterative processes are preferred by commercial developers because it allows a potential of reaching the design goals of a customer who does not know how to define what they want.

While Iterative development approaches have their advantages, software architects are still faced with the challenge of creating a reliable foundation upon which to develop. Such a foundation often requires a fair amount of upfront analysis and prototyping to build a development model. The development model often relies upon specific design patterns and entity relationship diagrams (ERD). Without this upfront foundation, Iterative development can create long term challenges that are significant in terms of cost and quality.

Critics of iterative development approaches point out that these processes place what may be an unreasonable expectation upon the recipient of the software: that they must possess the skills and experience of a seasoned software developer. The approach can also be very expensive if iterations are not small enough to mitigate risk; akin to... "If you don't know what kind of house you want, let me build you one and see if you like it. If you don't, we'll tear it all down and start over." By analogy the critic argues that up-front design is as necessary for software development as it is for architecture. The problem with this criticism is that the whole point of iterative programming is that you don't have to build the whole house before you get feedback from the recipient. Indeed, in a sense conventional programming places more of this burden on the recipient, as the requirements and planning phases take place entirely before the development begins, and testing only occurs after development is officially over.

These approaches have been developed along with web based technologies. As such, they are actually more akin to maintenance life cycles given that most of the architecture and capability of the solutions is embodied within the technology selected as the back bone of the application.

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