Why software development practice matters, Containerization version

A while back, Kai Blin (via Nick Loman) asked Michael Barton:

If we containerize all these things won't it just encourage worse software development practices; right now developers still need to consider someone other than themselves installing the software.

and Michael Barton's response, transcribed, was:

"It's a good point. Ultimately, though, if I can get a container, and it works, and I know it will work, do you care how well it was developed? I think if a software developer uses unit tests, feature tests, and all those things, it will be easier for themselves to develop the software, but if I can get a container and even if it was, say, developed with terrible software practices, as long as it works for me and nucleotide.es will test it and make sure it works, then do you care?"

The answer is unambiguously yes, of course. Here's today's anecdote:

We've spent a few months working with a fairly widely used software package in bioinformatics. We found a really obvious but rather minor bug in it a month or two ago, and in tracking down the location of the bug, we spent a lot of time looking at the source code.

Because we looked at it, we no longer trust the package.

The source code is long, complicated, poorly modularized, and (in the place we found the bug) is largely incomprehensible. It comes with no test suite. In order to try to fix the bug, we would have to first create a bunch of our own tests of the larger code base. We are therefore declining to fix the bug (although it's obvious enough that we will probably contact the developers).

Did I mention that it's widely used?

So, in response to Michael:

You can containerize bad code all you want, and now you'll have nice, easy-to-install code that is producing wrong answers.

Yay! Wrong answers more quickly!!!

We need to recognize that most code is broken, and that bad code is *much* more likely to be wrong. If you're not using three of the most obvious lines of defenses against broken code (small functions, version control, and automated tests) then your code is probably wrong. Full stop.

Back to the software with the bug:

I'm honestly not sure what to do next. Our options are --

  1. File a bug report, stop using the package, and be on our merry way.
  2. Dive into the code base, build a test suite, and put the time into verifying someone else's code so that we and others can use it reliably.
  3. Dive into the code base, find more bugs, and then blog about how unreliable the software is - the "name them and shame them" approach. (Doing this without finding more actual bugs would be unfair IMO; at the moment it's just an intuition, albeit it a strong one.)

I suppose I could contact the developers and have an frank and robust discussion with them about how they need to test their software, but I don't know them very well and think it would lead into a big time suck.

But I also am concerned about taking the time away from other things to work on this. The time tradeoffs are considerable - I have spouse & children, meetings with postdocs/ grad students/collaborators, training workshops, and exercise that occupy essentially all my time. Should I spend what little time I have to think and write and code, on this?

A fourth option that I am leaning towards is "testing-lite" - test the key bits that we care about, and then do hack-y or low-performance reimplementations of the bits that we really care about, and then compare results.

A fifth approach (that would probably take too much time) would be to combine 2 and 3 above with refactoring of the code base itself, followed by re- or co-publication. This is probably the right approach.

More generally, what do we do about this kind of thing as a community? What do people think about 1-5 above? Are there approaches that I'm missing here?


p.s. I'd appreciate it if those who know what software I'm talking about could avoid outing it; thanks.

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