Computer-Aided Software Engineering

Fourteen years ago, fresh of translating Ian Sommerville’s Software Engineering (no, don’t buy it, I don’t find it worth it), and approaching the FLOSS community for the first time, I wrote a long article for the Italian edition of Linux Journal on Computer-Aided Software Engineering (CASE) tools. Recently, I’ve decided to post that article on the blog, since the original publisher is gone, and I thought it would be useful to just have it around. And because the OCR is not really reliable, I ended up having to retype a good chunk of it.

And that reminded me of how, despite me having been wrong a lot of times before, I still think some ideas stuck with me and I still find them valid. CASE is one of those, even though a lot of times we’re not really talking of the tools involved as CASE.

UML is the usual example of a CASE tool — it confuses a lot of people because the “language” part suggests it’s actually used to write programs, but that’s not what it is for: it is a way to represent similar concepts in similar ways, without having to re-explain the same iconography: sequence diagrams, component diagrams, entity-relationship diagrams standardise the way you express certain relationship and information. That’s what it is all about — and while you could draw all of those diagrams without any specific tool, with either LibreOffice Draw, or Inkscape, or Visio, specific tools for UML are meant to help (aid) you with the task.

My personal preferred tool for UML is Visual Paradigm, which is a closed-source, proprietary solution — I have not found a good open source toolkit that could replace it. PlantUML is an interesting option, but it doesn’t have nearly all the aid that I would expect form an actual UML CASE tool — you can’t properly express relationships between different components across diagrams, as you don’t have a library of components and models.

But setting UML aside, there’s a lot more that should fit into the CASE definition. Tools for code validation and review, which are some of my favourite things ever, are also aids to software engineering. And so are linters, formatters, and sanitizers. It’s easy to just call them “dev tools”, but I would argue that particularly when it comes to automating the code workflows, it makes sense to consider them CASE tools, and reduce the stigma attached to the concept of CASE, particularly in the more “trendy” startups and open source — where I still feel push backs at using UML, or auto-formatters, and integrated development environments.

Indeed, for most of these tools, they are already considered their own category: “developer productivity”. Which is not wrong, but it does reduce significantly the impact they have — it’s not just about developers, or coders. I like to say that Software Engineering is a teamwork practice, and not everybody on a Software Engineering team would be a coder — or a software engineer, even.

A proper repository of documents, kept up to date with the implementation, is not just useful for the developers that come later, and need to implement features that integrate with the already existing system. It’s useful for the SRE/Ops folks who are debugging something on fire, and are looking at the interaction between different components. It’s useful to the customer support folks who are being asked why only a particular type of requests are failing in one of the backends. It’s useful to the product managers to have clear which use cases are implemented for the service, and which components are involved in specific user journeys.

And similarly it extends for other type of tools — A code review tool that can enforce updates to the documentation. A dependency tracking system that can match known vulnerabilities. A documentation repository that allows full reviews. An issue tracker system that can identify who most recently changed code that affects the component an issue was filed on.

And from here you can see why I’m sceptical about single-issue tools being “good enough”. Without integration, these tools are only as useful as the time they save, and often that means they are “negative useful” — it takes time to set up the tools, to remember to run them, and to address their concern. Integrated tools instead can provide additional benefits that go beyond their immediate features.

Take a linter as an example: a good linter with low false positive rate is a great tool to make sure your code is well written. But if you have to manually run it, it’s likely that, in a collaborative project, only a few people will be running it after each change, slowing them down, while not making much of a difference for everyone else. It gets easier if the linter is integrated in the editor (or IDE), and even easier if it’s also integrated as part of code review – so those who are not using the same editor can still be advised by it – and it’s much better if it’s integrated with something like pre-commit to make it so the issues are fixed before the review is sent out.

And looking at all these pieces together, the integrations, and the user journeys, that is itself Software Engineering. FLOSS developers in general appears to have built a lot of components and tools that would allow building those integrations, but until recently I would have said that there’s been no real progress in making it proper software engineering. Nowadays, I’m happy to see that there is some progress, even as simple as EditorConfig, to avoid having to fight over which editors to support in a repository, and which ones not to.

Hopefully this type of tooling is not going to be relegated to textbooks in the future, and we’ll also be used to have a bunch of CASE tools in our toolbox, to make software… better.

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