Software definition, characteristics and Software Applications
In 1970, less than 1 percent of the public could have intelligently described what "computer software" meant. Today, most professionals and many members of the public at large feel that they understand software. But do they? A textbook description of software might take the following form:
Software is (1) instructions (computer programs) that when executed provide desired function and performance, (2) data structures that enable the programs to adequately manipulate information, and (3) documents that describe the operation and use of the programs.
To gain an understanding of software (and ultimately an understanding of software engineering), it is important to examine the characteristics of software that make it different from other things that human beings build. When hardware is built, the human creative process (analysis, design, construction, testing) is ultimately translated into a physical form. If we build a new computer, our initial sketches, formal design drawings, and breadboarded prototype evolve into a physical product (chips, circuit boards, power supplies, etc.). Software is a logical rather than a physical system element. Therefore, software has characteristics that are considerably different than those of hardware:
1. Software is developed or engineered, it is not manufactured in the classical sense. Although some similarities exist between software development and hardware manufacture, the two activities are fundamentally different. In both activities, high quality is achieved through good design, but the manufacturing phase for hardware can introduce quality problems that are nonexistent (or easily corrected) for software. Both activities are dependent on people, but the relationship between people applied and work accomplished is entirely different. Both activities require the construction of a "product" but the approaches are different. Software costs are concentrated in engineering. This means that software projects cannot be managed as if they were manufacturing projects.
2. Software doesn't "wear out." Figure 1.1 depicts failure rate as a function of time for hardware. The relationship, often called the "bathtub curve," indicates that hardware exhibits relatively high failure rates early in its life (these failures are often attributable to design or manufacturing defects); defects are corrected and the failure rate drops to a steady-state level (ideally, quite low) for some period of time. As time passes, however, the failure rate rises again as hardware components suffer from the cumulative affects of dust, vibration, abuse, temperature extremes, and many other environmental maladies. Stated simply, the hardware begins to wear out.
Software is not susceptible to the environmental maladies that cause hardware to wear out. In theory, therefore, the failure rate curve for software should take the form of the “idealized curve” shown in Figure 1.2. Undiscovered defects will cause high failure rates early in the life of a program. However, these are corrected (ideally, without introducing other errors) and the curve flattens as shown.The idealized curve is a gross oversimplification of actual failure models (see Chapter 8 for more information) for software. However, the implication is clear—software doesn't wear out. But it does deteriorate! This seeming contradiction can best be explained by considering the “actual curve” shown in Figure 1.2. During its life, software will undergo change (maintenance). As changes are made, it is likely that some new defects will be introduced, causing the failure rate curve to spike as shown in Figure 1.2. Before the curve can return to the original steady-state failure rate, another change is requested, causing the curve to spike again. Slowly, the minimum failure rate level begins to rise—the software is deteriorating due to change. Another aspect of wear illustrates the difference between hardware and software. When a hardware component wears out, it is replaced by a spare part. There are no software spare parts. Every software failure indicates an error in design or in the process through which design was translated into machine executable code. Therefore, software maintenance involves considerably more complexity than hardware maintenance.
3. Although the industry is moving toward component-based assembly, most software continues to be custom built. Consider the manner in which the control hardware for a computer-based product is designed and built. The design engineer draws a simple schematic of the digital circuitry, does some fundamental analysis to assure that proper function will be achieved, and then goes to the shelf where catalogs of digital components exist. Each integrated circuit (called an IC or a chip) has a part number, a defined and validated function, a well-defined interface, and a standard set of integration guidelines. After each component is selected, it can be ordered off the shelf. As an engineering discipline evolves, a collection of standard design components is created. Standard screws and off-the-shelf integrated circuits are only two of thousands of standard components that are used by mechanical and electrical engineers as they design new systems. The reusable components have been created so that the engineer can concentrate on the truly innovative elements of a design, that is, the parts of the design that represent something new. In the hardware world, component reuse is a natural part of the engineering process. In the software world, it is something that has only begun to be achieved on a broad scale.
A software component should be designed and implemented so that it can be reused in many different programs. In the 1960s, we built scientific subroutine libraries that were reusable in a broad array of engineering and scientific applications. These subroutine libraries reused well-defined algorithms in an effective manner but had a limited domain of application. Today, we have extended our view of reuse to encompass not only algorithms but also data structure. Modern reusable components encapsulate both data and the processing applied to the data, enabling the software engineer to create new applications from reusable parts. For example, today's graphical user interfaces are built using reusable components that enable the creation of graphics windows, pull-down menus, and a wide variety of interaction mechanisms. The data structure and processing detail required to build the interface are contained with a library of reusable components for interface construction.
Software may be applied in any situation for which a prespecified set of procedural steps (i.e., an algorithm) has been defined (notable exceptions to this rule are expert system software and neural network software). Information content and determinacy are important factors in determining the nature of a software application. Content refers to the meaning and form of incoming and outgoing information. For example, many business applications use highly structured input data (a database) and produce formatted “reports.” Software that controls an automated machine (e.g., a numerical control) accepts discrete data items with limited structure and produces individual machine commands in rapid succession. Information determinacy refers to the predictability of the order and timing of information. An engineering analysis program accepts data that have a predefined order, executes the analysis algorithm(s) without interruption, and produces resultant data in report or graphical format. Such applications are determinate. A multiuser operating system, on the other hand, accepts inputs that have varied content and arbitrary timing, executes algorithms that can be interrupted by external conditions, and produces output that varies as a function of environment and time. Applications with these characteristics are indeterminate. It is somewhat difficult to develop meaningful generic categories for software applications. As software complexity grows, neat compartmentalization disappears. The following software areas indicate the breadth of potential applications: System software.
System software is a collection of programs written to service other programs. Some system software (e.g., compilers, editors, and file management utilities) process complex, but determinate, information structures. Other systems applications (e.g., operating system components, drivers, telecommunications processors) process largely indeterminate data. In either case, the system software area is characterized by heavy interaction with computer hardware; heavy usage by multiple users; concurrent operation that requires scheduling, resource sharing, and sophisticated process management; complex data structures; and multiple external interfaces.
Real-time software. Software that monitors/analyzes/controls real-world events as they occur is called real time. Elements of real-time software include a data gathering component that collects and formats information from an external environment, an analysis component that transforms information as required by the application, a control/output component that responds to the external environment, and a monitoring component that coordinates all other components so that real-time response (typically ranging from 1 millisecond to 1 second) can be maintained.
Business software. Business information processing is the largest single software application area. Discrete "systems" (e.g., payroll, accounts receivable/payable, inventory) have evolved into management information system (MIS) software that accesses one or more large databases containing business information. Applications in this area restructure existing data in a way that facilitates business operations or management decision making. In addition to conventional data processing application, business software applications also encompass interactive computing (e.g., pointof-sale transaction processing).
Engineering and scientific software. Engineering and scientific software have been characterized by "number crunching" algorithms. Applications range from astronomy to volcanology, from automotive stress analysis to space shuttle orbital dynamics, and from molecular biology to automated manufacturing. However, modern applications within the engineering/scientific area are moving away from conventional numerical algorithms. Computer-aided design, system simulation, and other interactive applications have begun to take on real-time and even system software characteristics.
Embedded software. Intelligent products have become commonplace in nearly every consumer and industrial market. Embedded software resides in read-only memory and is used to control products and systems for the consumer and industrial markets. Embedded software can perform very limited and esoteric functions (e.g., keypad control for a microwave oven) or provide significant function and control capability (e.g., digital functions in an automobile such as fuel control, dashboard displays, and braking systems).
Personal computer software. The personal computer software market has burgeoned over the past two decades. Word processing, spreadsheets, computer graphics, multimedia, entertainment, database management, personal and business financial applications, external network, and database access are only a few of hundreds of applications.
Web-based software. The Web pages retrieved by a browser are software that incorporates executable instructions (e.g., CGI, HTML, Perl, or Java), and data (e.g., ypertext and a variety of visual and audio formats). In essence, the network becomes a massive computer providing an almost unlimited software resource that can be accessed by anyone with a modem.
Artificial intelligence software. Artificial intelligence (AI) software makes use of nonnumerical algorithms to solve complex problems that are not amenable to computation or straightforward analysis. Expert systems, also called knowledgebased systems, pattern recognition (image and voice), artificial neural networks, theorem proving, and game playing are representative of applications within this category.