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< Contents ERCIM News No. 58, July 2004

Identifying Cross-Cutting Concerns in Embedded C Code

by Magiel Bruntink, Arie van Deursen and Tom Tourwé

The identification and refactoring of cross-cutting concerns is the topic of Ideals, a four-year research project conducted in cooperation with ASML, the world market leader in lithography systems based in Veldhoven, The Netherlands. The research partners in this project are CWI, TU/e, UT, and the Embedded Systems Institute (ESI) based in Eindhoven. The project has commenced in September 2003.

Large-scale industrial software applications are inherently complex, and a good separation of concerns within the application is therefore indispensable. Unfortunately, recent insight reveals that the current means for separation of concerns, namely functional decomposition or object-oriented programming, are insufficient. No matter how well large applications are decomposed using current means, some functionality, typically called 'cross-cutting concerns', will not fit the chosen decomposition. As a result, implementations of such cross-cutting concerns will be scattered across the entire system, and become entangled with other code. In this case, the consequences for maintenance of the system and its future evolution, are obviously dire.

Aspect-oriented software development (AOSD) has been proposed as an improved means for separation of concerns. Aspect-oriented programming languages add an abstraction mechanism (called an 'aspect') to existing (object-oriented) programming languages. This mechanism allows a developer to capture cross-cutting concerns in a modular way. In order to use this new feature and make the code easier to maintain, existing applications written in ordinary programming languages should be evolved into aspect-oriented applications. To that end, scattered and tangled code implementing cross-cutting concerns should be identified, and subsequently refactored into aspects.

Identifying Cross-Cutting Concerns
Source code implementing cross-cutting concerns (CCCs) tends to involve a great deal of duplication. First of all, since such code cannot be captured cleanly inside a single abstraction, it cannot be reused. Therefore, developers are forced to write the same code over and over again, and are tempted to simply copy and paste the code and adapt it slightly to the context. Alternatively, they may use particular coding conventions and idioms, which also exhibit similar code. We hypothesise from this observation that clone detection techniques might be ideal candidates for identifying CCC code, since they automatically detect duplicated code in the source code of an application.

Case Study
Our experiment was performed on a software component consisting of 19 000 lines of C code, which formed part of the larger code base (comprising over 10 million lines of code) of ASML. Developers at ASML currently use an idiomatic approach to the implementation of CCCs. Consequently, similar pieces of code are scattered throughout the application, as can be seen in Figure 1, where each column represents a module and each colour represents one of four CCCs. For the moment we focused on CCCs dealing with tracing (green), pre- and post-condition checking (yellow), memory-error handling (blue), and general-error handling (red). All together, the CCCs we considered comprised roughly 31% of the code. For the experiment, an ASML developer manually annotated the source code lines of the 19 KLOC component, indicating for each source code line the CCC to which it belongs. As a result, each CCC is defined by a set of source code lines. Subsequently, we used a clone detector to obtain 'clone classes', ie sets of code fragments that are cloned (similar).

Figure 1:  Cross-cutting concerns in a 19 KLOC component.
Figure 1: Cross-cutting concerns in a 19 KLOC component.

In order to evaluate to what extent the clone detector meets our goal of identifying CCC code, we investigated the level of 'concern coverage' met by the clone classes. Concern coverage is the fraction of source code lines of a concern that occur in the clone classes, ie the source code lines that occur as part of one of the cloned code fragments. Conversely, we evaluate the precision obtained by the clone classes. 'Precision' is defined as the ratio of concern lines to total lines occurring in the clone classes.

We are primarily interested in achieving sufficient coverage without losing too much precision. We therefore focus on the number of clone classes needed to cover most of a concern, where we consider 80% to be a sufficient coverage level.

Figures 2a and 2b show the coverage and precision levels obtained by the clone classes. The horizontal axis represents those sets of n clone classes that each obtain the highest possible coverage for a CCC. Vertically, we have the level of coverage in Figure 2a and the level of precision in Figure 2b. In this paper we only present the results of a clone detector that implements Baxter's AST-based clone detection algorithm.
Observe that as the number of clone classes increases, the coverage displays a monotonic growth, whereas the precision tends to decrease. The highest coverage is less than 100% in all cases: the remaining percentage corresponds to concern code that is coded in such a unique way that it does not occur in any clone class.

Figure 2: Clone detection results.
Figure 2: Clone detection results.

The parameter checking and memory-error handling concerns are covered sufficiently well (80%) using a limited number of clone classes. Furthermore, the level of precision obtained by the clone classes in the parameter-checking case is very high: the first four selected clone classes obtain a precision as high as 98%. In contrast, the tracing and error-handling concerns do not show the same results. Both concerns are not sufficiently covered, although the coverage of tracing is almost sufficient (78%). Additionally, the obtained precision is low. An exception is the precision obtained for the tracing concern by the first two clone classes: they cover 32% of the tracing code at 100% precision. However, if more clone classes are considered, the precision degrades quickly.

Evaluating the clone classes in terms of concern coverage and precision identified many clone classes that will be of value during our research within the context of the ASML code base. The component we considered is a small but representative example of the components that exist within this code base. It is likely therefore, that the clone classes we found to cover large portions of CCC code will be of great use for identification of CCC code in the other components.

In a more general sense, we intend to work toward a fully automatic 'concern mining' tool. Based on the results, we can conclude that clone detection techniques are capable of characterising large portions of the code of certain CCCs. However, in our experiment we included an important manual step: the knowledge of an expert is used to identify the CCC code. Further experiments will be needed to show that clone detection techniques can also find CCC code using a more limited amount of expert knowledge.


Please contact:
Magiel Bruntink, Arie van Deursen,
Tom Tourwé, CWI, The Netherlands
Tel: +31 20 592 4075