Visible to the public Biblio

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Christian Kästner, Jurgen Pfeffer.  2014.  Analyzing Interactions and Isolation among Configuration Options. HotSoS '14 Proceedings of the 2014 Symposium and Bootcamp on the Science of Security.

In highly configurable systems the configuration space is too big for (re-)certifying every configuration in isolation. In this project, we combine software analysis with network analysis to detect which configuration options interact and which have local effects. Instead of analyzing a system as Linux and SELinux for every combination of configuration settings one by one (>102000 even considering compile-time configurations only), we analyze the effect of each configuration option once for the entire configuration space. The analysis will guide us to designs separating interacting configuration options in a core system and isolating orthogonal and less trusted configuration options from this core. 

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Gabriel Ferreira, Christian Kästner, Jurgen Pfeffer, Sven Apel.  2015.  Characterizing complexity of highly-configurable systems with variational call graphs: analyzing configuration options interactions complexity in function calls. HotSoS '15 Proceedings of the 2015 Symposium and Bootcamp on the Science of Security.

Security has consistently been the focus of attention in many highly-configurable software systems. Several vulnerabilities on widely-used systems, such as the Linux kernel and OpenSSL, are reported every day in the National Vulnerability Database (NVD). The configurability of these systems enables the rapid generation of customized products, but also creates security challenges in the development and maintenance processes. For instance, interactions caused by configurations may create serious security threats and make generated products more susceptible to attacks [6], but the causes of these problems may be harder to detect because they occur only in specific configurations.

Meng Meng, Jens Meinicke, Chu-Pan Wong, Eric Walkingshaw, Christian Kästner.  2017.  A Choice of Variational Stacks: Exploring Variational Data Structures. 11th International Workshop on Variability Modelling of Software-intensive Systems (VAMOS).

Many applications require not only representing variability in software and data, but also computing with it. To do so efficiently requires variational data structures that make the variability explicit in the underlying data and the operations used to manipulate it. Variational data structures have been developed ad hoc for many applications, but there is little general understanding of how to design them or what tradeoffs exist among them. In this paper, we strive for a more systematic exploration and analysis of a variational data structure. We want to know how different design decisions affect the performance and scalability of a variational data structure, and what properties of the underlying data and operation sequences need to be considered. Specifically, we study several alternative designs of a variational stack, a data structure that supports efficiently representing and computing with multiple variants of a plain stack, and that is a common building block in many algorithms. The different variational stacks are presented as a small product line organized by three design decisions. We analyze how these design decisions affect the performance of a variational stack with different usage profiles. Finally, we evaluate how these design decisions affect the performance of the variational stack in a real-world scenario: in the interpreter VarexJ when executing real software containing variability. 

Flavio Medeiros, Christian Kästner, Marcio Ribeiro, Rohit Gheyi, Sven Apel.  2016.  A comparison of 10 sampling algorithms for configurable systems. ICSE '16 Proceedings of the 38th International Conference on Software Engineering. :643-654.

Almost every software system provides configuration options to tailor the system to the target platform and application scenario. Often, this configurability renders the analysis of every individual system configuration infeasible. To address this problem, researchers have proposed a diverse set of sampling algorithms. We present a comparative study of 10 state-of-the-art sampling algorithms regarding their fault-detection capability and size of sample sets. The former is important to improve software quality and the latter to reduce the time of analysis. In a nutshell, we found that sampling algorithms with larger sample sets are able to detect higher numbers of faults, but simple algorithms with small sample sets, such as most-enabled-disabled, are the most efficient in most contexts. Furthermore, we observed that the limiting assumptions made in previous work influence the number of detected faults, the size of sample sets, and the ranking of algorithms. Finally, we have identified a number of technical challenges when trying to avoid the limiting assumptions, which questions the practicality of certain sampling algorithms.

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Flavio Medeiros, Marcio Ribeiro, Rohit Gheyi, Sven Apel, Christian Kästner, Bruno Ferreira, Luiz Carvalho, Baldoino Fonseca.  2017.  Discipline Matters: Refactoring of Preprocessor Directives in the #ifdef Hell. IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering . (99)

The C preprocessor is used in many C projects to support variability and portability. However, researchers and practitioners criticize the C preprocessor because of its negative effect on code understanding and maintainability and its error proneness. More importantly, the use of the preprocessor hinders the development of tool support that is standard in other languages, such as automated refactoring. Developers aggravate these problems when using the preprocessor in undisciplined ways (e.g., conditional blocks that do not align with the syntactic structure of the code). In this article, we proposed a catalogue of refactorings and we evaluated the number of application possibilities of the refactorings in practice, the opinion of developers about the usefulness of the refactorings, and whether the refactorings preserve behavior. Overall, we found 5670 application possibilities for the refactorings in 63 real-world C projects. In addition, we performed an online survey among 246 developers, and we submitted 28 patches to convert undisciplined directives into disciplined ones. According to our results, 63% of developers prefer to use the refactored (i.e., disciplined) version of the code instead of the original code with undisciplined preprocessor usage. To verify that the refactorings are indeed behavior preserving, we applied them to more than 36 thousand programs generated automatically using a model of a subset of the C language, running the same test cases in the original and refactored programs. Furthermore, we applied the refactorings to three real-world projects: BusyBox, OpenSSL, and SQLite. This way, we detected and fixed a few behavioral changes, 62% caused by unspecified behavior in the C language.

Gabriel Ferreira, Momin Malik, Christian Kästner, Jurgen Pfeffer, Sven Apel.  2016.  Do #ifdefs influence the occurrence of vulnerabilities? an empirical study of the linux kernel SPLC '16 Proceedings of the 20th International Systems and Software Product Line Conference. :65-73.

Preprocessors support the diversification of software products with #ifdefs, but also require additional effort from developers to maintain and understand variable code. We conjecture that #ifdefs cause developers to produce more vulnerable code because they are required to reason about multiple features simultaneously and maintain complex mental models of dependencies of configurable code.

We extracted a variational call graph across all configurations of the Linux kernel, and used configuration complexity metrics to compare vulnerable and non-vulnerable functions considering their vulnerability history. Our goal was to learn about whether we can observe a measurable influence of configuration complexity on the occurrence of vulnerabilities.

Our results suggest, among others, that vulnerable functions have higher variability than non-vulnerable ones and are also constrained by fewer configuration options. This suggests that developers are inclined to notice functions appear in frequently-compiled product variants. We aim to raise developers' awareness to address variability more systematically, since configuration complexity is an important, but often ignored aspect of software product lines.

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Waqar Ahmad, Joshua Sunshine, Christian Kästner, Adam Wynne.  2015.  Enforcing Fine-Grained Security and Privacy Policies in an Ecosystem within an Ecosystem. Systems, Programming, Languages and Applications: Software for Humanity (SPLASH).

Smart home automation and IoT promise to bring many advantages but they also expose their users to certain security and privacy vulnerabilities. For example, leaking the information about the absence of a person from home or the medicine somebody is taking may have serious security and privacy consequences for home users and potential legal implications for providers of home automation and IoT platforms. We envision that a new ecosystem within an existing smartphone ecosystem will be a suitable platform for distribution of apps for smart home and IoT devices. Android is increasingly becoming a popular platform for smart home and IoT devices and applications. Built-in security mechanisms in ecosystems such as Android have limitations that can be exploited by malicious apps to leak users' sensitive data to unintended recipients. For instance, Android enforces that an app requires the Internet permission in order to access a web server but it does not control which servers the app talks to or what data it shares with other apps. Therefore, sub-ecosystems that enforce additional fine-grained custom policies on top of existing policies of the smartphone ecosystems are necessary for smart home or IoT platforms. To this end, we have built a tool that enforces additional policies on inter-app interactions and permissions of Android apps. We have done preliminary testing of our tool on three proprietary apps developed by a future provider of a home automation platform. Our initial evaluation demonstrates that it is possible to develop mechanisms that allow definition and enforcement of custom security policies appropriate for ecosystems of the like smart home automation and IoT.

Jafar Al-Kofahi, Tien Nguyen, Christian Kästner.  2016.  Escaping AutoHell: a vision for automated analysis and migration of autotools build systems. RELENG 2016 Proceedings of the 4th International Workshop on Release Engineering.

GNU Autotools is a widely used build tool in the open source community. As open source projects grow more complex, maintaining their build systems becomes more challenging, due to the lack of tool support. In this paper, we propose a platform to build support tools for GNU Autotools build systems. The platform provides an abstraction of the build system to be used in different analysis techniques.

Jens Meinicke, Chu-Pan Wong, Christian Kästner, Thomas Thum, Gunter Saake.  2016.  On essential configuration complexity: measuring interactions in highly-configurable systems. ASE 2016 Proceedings of the 31st IEEE/ACM International Conference on Automated Software Engineering. :483-494.

Quality assurance for highly-configurable systems is challenging due to the exponentially growing configuration space. Interactions among multiple options can lead to surprising behaviors, bugs, and security vulnerabilities. Analyzing all configurations systematically might be possible though if most options do not interact or interactions follow specific patterns that can be exploited by analysis tools. To better understand interactions in practice, we analyze program traces to characterize and identify where interactions occur on control flow and data. To this end, we developed a dynamic analysis for Java based on variability-aware execution and monitor executions of multiple small to medium-sized programs. We find that the essential configuration complexity of these programs is indeed much lower than the combinatorial explosion of the configuration space indicates. However, we also discover that the interaction characteristics that allow scalable and complete analyses are more nuanced than what is exploited by existing state-of-the-art quality assurance strategies.

Shurui Zhou, Jafar Al-Kofahi, Tien Nguyen, Christian Kästner, Sarah Nadi.  2015.  Extracting configuration knowledge from build files with symbolic analysis. RELENG '15 Proceedings of the Third International Workshop on Release Engineering.

Build systems contain a lot of configuration knowledge about a software system, such as under which conditions specific files are compiled. Extracting such configuration knowledge is important for many tools analyzing highly-configurable systems, but very challenging due to the complex nature of build systems. We design an approach, based on SYMake, that symbolically evaluates Makefiles and extracts configuration knowledge in terms of file presence conditions and conditional parameters. We implement an initial prototype and demonstrate feasibility on small examples.

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Christopher Bogart, Christian Kästner, James Herbsleb, Ferdian Thung.  2016.  How to break an API: cost negotiation and community values in three software ecosystems. FSE 2016 Proceedings of the 2016 24th ACM SIGSOFT International Symposium on Foundations of Software Engineering.

Change introduces conflict into software ecosystems: breaking changes may ripple through the ecosystem and trigger rework for users of a package, but often developers can invest additional effort or accept opportunity costs to alleviate or delay downstream costs. We performed a multiple case study of three software ecosystems with different tooling and philosophies toward change, Eclipse, R/CRAN, and Node.js/npm, to understand how developers make decisions about change and change-related costs and what practices, tooling, and policies are used. We found that all three ecosystems differ substantially in their practices and expectations toward change and that those differences can be explained largely by different community values in each ecosystem. Our results illustrate that there is a large design space in how to build an ecosystem, its policies and its supporting infrastructure; and there is value in making community values and accepted tradeoffs explicit and transparent in order to resolve conflicts and negotiate change-related costs

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Raman Goyal, Gabriel Ferreira, Christian Kästner, James Herbsleb.  2017.  Identifying Unusual Commits on GitHub. JOURNAL OF SOFTWARE: EVOLUTION AND PROCESS.

Transparent environments and social-coding platforms as GitHub help developers to stay abreast of changes during the development and maintenance phase of a project. Especially, notification feeds can help developers to learn about relevant changes in other projects. Unfortunately, transparent environments can quickly overwhelm developers with too many notifications, such that they loose the important ones in a sea of noise. Complementing existing prioritization and filtering strategies based on binary compatibility and code ownership, we develop an anomaly-detection mechanism to identify unusual commits in a repository, that stand out with respect to other changes in the same repository or by the same developer. Among others, we detect exceptionally large commits, commits at unusual times, and commits touching rarely changed file types given the characteristics of a particular repository or developer. We automatically flag unusual commits on GitHub through a browser plugin. In an interactive survey with 173 active GitHub users, rating commits in a project of their interest, we found that, though our unusual score is only a weak predictor of whether developers want to be notified about a commit, information about unusual characteristics of a commit change how developers regard commits. Our anomaly-detection mechanism is a building block for scaling transparent environments.

James Herbsleb, Christian Kästner, Christopher Bogart.  2015.  Intelligently Transparent Software Ecosystems. IEEE Software. 33(1)

Today's social-coding tools foreshadow a transformation of the software industry, as it relies increasingly on open libraries, frameworks, and code fragments. Our vision calls for new intelligently transparent services that support rapid development of innovative products while helping developers manage risk and issuing them early warnings of looming failures. Intelligent transparency is enabled by an infrastructure that applies analytics to data from all phases of the life cycle of open source projects, from development to deployment. Such an infrastructure brings stakeholders the information they need when they need it.

Waqar Ahmad, Christian Kästner, Joshua Sunshine, Jonathan Aldrich.  2016.  Inter-app Communication in Android: Developer Challenges. 2016 IEEE/ACM 13th Working Conference on Mining Software Repositories. :177-188.

The Android platform is designed to support mutually untrusted third-party apps, which run as isolated processes but may interact via platform-controlled mechanisms, called Intents. Interactions among third-party apps are intended and can contribute to a rich user experience, for example, the ability to share pictures from one app with another. The Android platform presents an interesting point in a design space of module systems that is biased toward isolation, extensibility, and untrusted contributions. The Intent mechanism essentially provides message channels among modules, in which the set of message types is extensible. However, the module system has design limitations including the lack of consistent mechanisms to document message types, very limited checking that a message conforms to its specifications, the inability to explicitly declare dependencies on other modules, and the lack of checks for backward compatibility as message types evolve over time. In order to understand the degree to which these design limitations result in real issues, we studied a broad corpus of apps and cross-validated our results against app documentation and Android support forums. Our findings suggest that design limitations do indeed cause development problems. Based on our results, we outline further research questions and propose possible mitigation strategies.

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Christian Kästner, Jurgen Pfeffer.  2014.  Limiting Recertification in Highly Configurable Systems Analyzing Interactions and Isolation among Configuration Options. HotSoS '14 Proceedings of the 2014 Symposium and Bootcamp on the Science of Security.

In highly configurable systems the configuration space is too big for (re-)certifying every configuration in isolation. In this project, we combine software analysis with network analysis to detect which configuration options interact and which have local effects. Instead of analyzing a system as Linux and SELinux for every combination of configuration settings one by one (>102000 even considering compile-time configurations only), we analyze the effect of each configuration option once for the entire configuration space. The analysis will guide us to designs separating interacting configuration options in a core system and isolating orthogonal and less trusted configuration options from this core. 

Flavio Medeiros, Christian Kästner, Marcio Ribeiro, Sarah Nadi, Rohit Gheyl.  2015.  The Love/Hate Relationship with The C Preprocessor: An Interview Study.. European Conference on Object-Oriented Programming (ECOOP).

The C preprocessor has received strong criticism in academia, among others regarding separation of concerns, error proneness, and code obfuscation, but is widely used in practice. Many (mostly academic) alternatives to the preprocessor exist, but have not been adopted in practice. Since developers continue to use the preprocessor despite all criticism and research, we ask how practitioners perceive the C preprocessor. We performed interviews with 40 developers, used grounded theory to analyze the data, and cross-validated the results with data from a survey among 202 developers, repository mining, and results from previous studies. In particular, we investigated four research questions related to why the preprocessor is still widely used in practice, common problems, alternatives, and the impact of undisciplined annotations. Our study shows that developers are aware of the criticism the C preprocessor receives, but use it nonetheless, mainly for portability and variability. Many developers indicate that they regularly face preprocessor-related problems and preprocessor-related bugs. The majority of our interviewees do not see any current C-native technologies that can entirely replace the C preprocessor. However, developers tend to mitigate problems with guidelines, but those guidelines are not enforced consistently. We report the key insights gained from our study and discuss implications for practitioners and researchers on how to better use the C preprocessor to minimize its negative impact.

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Claus Hunsen, Bo Zhang, Janet Siegmund, Christian Kästner, Olaf Lebenich, Martin Becker, Sven Apel.  2015.  Preprocessor-based variability in open-source and industrial software systems: An empirical study. Empirical Software Engineering. 20:1-34.

Almost every sufficiently complex software system today is configurable. Conditional compilation is a simple variability-implementation mechanism that is widely used in open-source projects and industry. Especially, the C preprocessor (CPP) is very popular in practice, but it is also gaining (again) interest in academia. Although there have been several attempts to understand and improve CPP, there is a lack of understanding of how it is used in open-source and industrial systems and whether different usage patterns have emerged. The background is that much research on configurable systems and product lines concentrates on open-source systems, simply because they are available for study in the first place. This leads to the potentially problematic situation that it is unclear whether the results obtained from these studies are transferable to industrial systems. We aim at lowering this gap by comparing the use of CPP in open-source projects and industry—especially from the embedded-systems domain—based on a substantial set of subject systems and well-known variability metrics, including size, scattering, and tangling metrics. A key result of our empirical study is that, regarding almost all aspects we studied, the analyzed open-source systems and the considered embedded systems from industry are similar regarding most metrics, including systems that have been developed in industry and made open source at some point. So, our study indicates that, regarding CPP as variability-implementation mechanism, insights, methods, and tools developed based on studies of open-source systems are transferable to industrial systems—at least, with respect to the metrics we considered.

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Momin Malik, Jurgen Pfeffer, Gabriel Ferreira, Christian Kästner.  2016.  Visualizing the variational callgraph of the Linux Kernel: An approach for reasoning about dependencies. HotSos '16 Proceedings of the Symposium and Bootcamp on the Science of Security.

Software developers use #ifdef statements to support code configurability, allowing software product diversification. But because functions can be in many executions paths that depend on complex combinations of configuration options, the introduction of an #ifdef for a given purpose (such as adding a new feature to a program) can enable unintended function calls, which can be a source of vulnerabilities. Part of the difficulty lies in maintaining mental models of all dependencies. We propose analytic visualizations of thevariational callgraph to capture dependencies across configurations and create visualizations to demonstrate how it would help developers visually reason through the implications of diversification, for example through visually doing change impact analysis.

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Sarah Nadi, Thorsten Berger, Christian Kästner, Krzysztof Czarnecki.  2015.  Where Do Configuration Constraints Stem From? An Extraction Approach and an Empirical Study IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering. 41(8)

Highly configurable systems allow users to tailor software to specific needs. Valid combinations of configuration options are often restricted by intricate constraints. Describing options and constraints in a variability model allows reasoning about the supported configurations. To automate creating and verifying such models, we need to identify the origin of such constraints. We propose a static analysis approach, based on two rules, to extract configuration constraints from code. We apply it on four highly configurable systems to evaluate the accuracy of our approach and to determine which constraints are recoverable from the code. We find that our approach is highly accurate (93% and 77% respectively) and that we can recover 28% of existing constraints. We complement our approach with a qualitative study to identify constraint sources, triangulating results from our automatic extraction, manual inspections, and interviews with 27 developers. We find that, apart from low-level implementation dependencies, configuration constraints enforce correct runtime behavior, improve users' configuration experience, and prevent corner cases. While the majority of constraints is extractable from code, our results indicate that creating a complete model requires further substantial domain knowledge and testing. Our results aim at supporting researchers and practitioners working on variability model engineering, evolution, and verification techniques.